An estimated 26,000 youth gangs with more than 840,500 members exist in the United States. Although the term gang may have different meanings in different contexts, for the purposes of this entry, gang is defined as a neighborhood group that is identified by others, and whose members recognize themselves, as a distinct group; its members are involved in activities that are illegal or considered inappropriate by neighborhood residents and/or law enforcement groups. Delinquency generally distinguishes gangs from other youth organizations. Youth gangs participate in some illegal activities and regularly violate school policies. This entry describes the scope of gang activity in the United States and then reviews reasons why youth join gangs.
The mid-1990s witnessed a decrease in gang activity in many schools and communities due to the development of federal, state, and local gang task forces. However, there was a dramatic increase in gang activity in 2003–2004, and current trends show a steady increase in youth gang activity in many communities and school districts. This poses a potential threat to the safety of others and a danger to the future of the young people who are drawn into gangs. Schools have become a place of recruitment and sources of territorial wars, or fights among rival gangs over geographic territory. Youth gang activity is anticipated for the foreseeable future.
Some scholarship suggests that urbanization and urbanism are influencing factors on youth gang activity and provide models that stimulate gang activity, even in small towns and rural areas. Gangs have been glamorized within the popular culture. Since the mid-1980s, youth gangs have grown in suburban and rural areas of the nation, increasing by 27 percent in suburban areas and by 29 percent in rural areas between 1998 and 1999. Overall, gang membership across the country increased from 731,500 in 2002 to 800,000 in 2007. Larger cities and suburban areas report more gang membership than smaller cities and rural areas, accounting for 80 percent of gang membership in 2005.
In most cases, gangs consist of members who share some common traits, such as age, gender, socioeconomic status, and race or ethnicity. Although once the domain for adults, gang activity today is viewed primarily as a teenage phenomenon. Juveniles have become the dominant members of gang culture, and their members mature out of the gang before adulthood through a process of gradual disaffiliation. The traditional age range of gang members in most cities is eight to twenty-one years of age. Gangs in local communities are found in high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools.
Gender is also a relevant factor that influences youth gang activity. Youth gangs have always been seen as a mostly male phenomenon. However, females constitute as much as 25 percent of gang membership, and they account for more behaviors that are associated with gangs than commonly thought. They commit acts that are just as violent as those of their male counterparts.
Some research indicates that the greater the socioeconomic deprivation, the more likely gangs will exist. Although youth from culturally, racially, and ethnically diverse backgrounds are more likely to form gangs, the fundamental reason is not their culture, race, or ethnicity, but rather the low socioeconomic status that they often experience in this view. Subsequently, a large percentage of youth from low socioeconomic backgrounds join “drug gangs,” which primarily sell and distribute drugs for profit. Many join because participation is a way to change their economic status and provide financial supports in the home.
In contrast to this perspective is research showing that economically affluent youth also belong to gangs. Proponents of this view say that it is a misconception that poor youth are more delinquent than affluent youth. Rather, they say, society is more lenient and forgiving with affluent youth, and therefore, the same behavior perceived to be “gang behavior” among poorer youngsters is appraised differently. They assert that youth gangs are unfairly labeled as the result of socioeconomic deprivation when there are actually other salient factors in the evaluation of delinquency.
Why Youth Join Gangs
There is a misconception that juveniles who join gangs are “bad.” Similar reasons why students join school organizations apply to why youth join gangs. Gang affiliation may be the student’s way of making friends and gaining a sense of acceptance and worth. Similarly, many youth join gangs to feel like they have a voice and control where they may normally feel out of control and a sense of helplessness. Some youth join gangs to fulfill needs of power and leadership that are seen as otherwise unattainable in society because of their race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. When a system denies privilege (e.g., institutional racism that is prevalent in schools), this often results in deprivation of power, privileges, and resources, which may cause many youth to develop their own institutionalized organizations.
Additionally, many youth gangs are a form of family for its members and serve as supports. Some youth join gangs for security and self-protection in response to threatening school and community environments. Acquiring economic gain may serve as a form of incentive for gang affiliation. After all, achieving wealth is an incentive in the case of members in society. Youth who may have difficulty meeting basic financial needs may join drug gangs for employment opportunities to earn money.
In understanding why youth join gangs, we also need to ask what factors are lacking in family, school, and community systems that draw students into a culture, and what is missing in the lives and experience of gang members that draws them to join. Schools have the potential to play a critical role in offering youth alternatives to gang membership.
- Ball, R. A., & Curry, G. D. (1995). The logic of definition in criminology: Purposes and methods for defining “gangs.” Criminology, 33, 225–245.
- Bilchik, S. (1999). 1997 National Youth Gang Survey. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
- Cummings, S., & Monti, D. J. (1993). Gangs: The origins and impact of contemporary youth gangs in the United States. Albany: State University of New York Press.
- Curry, G. D., Ball, R. A., & Fox, R. J. (1994). Final report: National assessment of law enforcement anti-gang information resources. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.
- Lasley, J. R. (1992). Age, social context, and street gang membership: Are “youth” gangs becoming “adult” gangs? Youth & Society, 23, 434–451.
- Focus Adolescent Services, Gangs: http://www.focusas.com/Gangs.html
- National School Safety and Security Services: http://www.schoolsecurity.org
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