Youth gangs an overview
Youth gangs an overview
Youth gangs and the myriad of problems associated with them were once thought to involve a relatively small number of major urban areas whose gang troubles mirrors those of the stereotypical West Side Story scenario. Isolated, under-privileged, youth involved with petty crime and "intimate" physical force played-out only amongst themselves. No longer is this the case. Since 1980, the United States has seen a proliferation of youth gangs. The number of cities with gang problems has increased. This has fueled the public's fear of gangs and enlarged their possible misconceptions about gang problems.
History of Juvenile Gangs
Youth gangs are generally believed to have first appeared in Western Europe or Mexico. The reason for the emergence of gangs in the United States is uncertain, as is the exact date. The earliest recorded incidence of youth gangs dates back to 1783 or towards the end of American Revolution. Social upheaval, displaced families, and a new economy may have caused this birth of a new sub-culture taking form. Youth gangs may have emerged spontaneously from pre-teen social groups or as a response to the industrialization of American culture (Block, 1996). Another theory is that youth gangs first emerged following the mexican migration into the American southwest following the Mexican Revolution in 1813. Mexican youth encountered difficult social and cultural adjustment in America coupled with extremely poor living condition in the southwest. Their organization of gangs and the criminal activity that followed stemmed from a need for survival and support. Schools were few and inadequate and menial jobs as we know them today were non-existent (Moore, 1978). By the early to mid 1800's gangs started to spread to the industrialized Northeast region of the United States. Gangs flourished in large urban cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia and particularly Chicago. Migration and population shifts within the United States reached peak levels during this time and the major cities were magnets for rural and immigrant families seeking employment opportunities. Gang activity, level of violence and proliferation seem to be directly related to population shifts within American society. Cultural, societal and economic changes in the United States influence gang activity. In the United States, gang growth and it's highest activity has happened during four distinct periods in history: the late 1800's, the 1920's, the 1960's and the 1990's (Curry, 1988).
In the past youth gangs were largely influenced by the availability of exploitable sources of money. In the modern era youth gangs have been greatly effected by increased mobility, the use of deadlier weapons and the emergence of the drug culture. Confrontations between rival gangs once involved fistfights together with the use of crude weapons such as chains, bats or brass-knuckles. The gangs were less mobile so their presence was generally limited to distinct neighborhoods and cities. Today with easy access to guns and automobiles, the youth gangs are more mobile, which increases their area of influence. The confrontations between gang members today result in more serious injuries and greater chances of fatalities due to guns. Even their involvement with the police is heightened due to their greater visibility in the community and increased overall threat of violence (Anderson, 1990).
Although indistinguishable to the outside viewer, each gang is separate and distinct within themselves. An untrained eye may see a group of youths at a local mall complete with the associated dress and mannerisms of gang members and immediately label them as a gang. In reality they may just be a loosely organized band of delinquents or merely a group of kids out on a Saturday afternoon at the mall. An organized gang bases their existence on a particular commonality. Some basis are age, sex, cultural background, neighborhood, belief in a particular way of lifestyle, or a specific behavior. Estimates of gang membership range from a few, four or five, to a few thousand. Due to the fluidity and validity of gang members, an accurate count of members is often impossible to attain (Vigil, 1988). Within the gangs are different types of members. Their are the core members, fringe members, associates and recruits. The core members are the established leaders within the gang along with the initiated members. They provide the leadership, the nature of the gang and determine the level of activity. It is these members who drive the gang in search of a pre-determined goal. The core members are the most involved with delinquent or criminal activity. The fringe members are those who generally have a relationship with the gang but are unwilling to become full-fledged members due to various reasons such as age, social or economic status, marital status or simply an unwillingness to commit to the lifestyle. They may be considered "users" of the gang but more often then not are themselves used. The recruits or "wannabees" are the newest and sometimes, most dangerous members. Not yet fully integrated into the gang, they are easily influenced due to their desire for acceptance. Recruits often perform some of the menial tasks of daily gang life along with many of the more dangerous ones due to their status as expendable. (Taylor, 1989).
The average age of the gang member is 17 or 18 years old, but this age tends to be older in urban cities where gang existence has been longer (Spergel, 1995). Recently it has been noted that the age of gang members is expanding both from the low end and the upper end. The most notable change is at the upper end where gang members are staying in gangs longer in order to exploit economic gain. The gangs today are more diverse in criminal activity and money-making. The crack-cocaine epidemic of the mid-1980's gave birth to another source of revenue for the gangs. Unlike the illicit drugs sold at the time, crack-cocaine was inexpensive to make, easily transported and resulted in a large profit margin for the dealer. This lucrative market prompted many older gang members to stay-on for "just a bit longer" in order to exploit the booming market for the new drug (Perkins, 1987).
Overwhelmingly, males make up the majority of gang members but female membership is on the rise. In 1992, a survey was conducted to find out the extent of females in gangs. Among the law enforcement agencies that responded it was determined that females accounted for nearly 6 percent of gang membership (Curry, 1995). The presence of female gangs are often affiliations of the larger and more organized male versions. Independent female gangs are present and on the rise in numbers, but the majority of females involved with gangs and gang activity are traditionally the affiliated members of male gangs. Females and female gangs are substantially less violent. The crimes committed by females were mostly simple battery or assault. Non-violent or petty crimes were mostly for drug and alcohol use. They may often be used as look-outs or to carry weapons or drugs for the male members. Females also tend to join or associate with gangs at a younger age and leave earlier then the male gang member (Block, 1996).
Why do youths join?
Youths raised in impoverished and deprived conditions are drawn to gangs for the support, money, excitement, safety or security, power and sometimes for the "love" that they provide. Many youths are surrounded by gang activity through older siblings or parents. They find joining a gang as normal and respectable behavior. Whole communities in some area of the United States hold certain affiliation with major gangs. The youth interprets membership in the gang as a common socialization process for himself and the community. All the values that others wish to embody through membership in churches, the military, civic organizations or school clubs are achieved through gang membership. Loyalty, honor, and fellowship are part of gang affiliation. The gang is most often seen as an extension of the family. Especially vulnerable to gang intimidation and membership are immigrant youths. Suddenly immersed in a different and complex culture, the immigrant youth struggles to maintain cultural and family ties yet incorporate himself into the American culture. The youth gang provides a family-like situation for these youths who often find themselves caught between native and adopted cultures. Having to struggle between both and unable to satisfy the "needs" of diverse lifestyles, the youth is often alienated by both sides and is drawn to the gang for comfort, security and support.
Youth Gangs and Violence
Since the 1950's more and more attention has been paid to youth gangs and their connection to violence and drug use and sales. The gang problem is increasing mainly from the standpoint of more violent offenses, more serious injuries, and the use of more lethal weapons and tactics. From 1950 to around the early 1980's, the relationship between violence and youth gangs went generally unnoticed. The concern here was that the outward results were usually confined to youth gang members and isolated communities. The incidents where drugs and violence were connected to youth gangs stemmed mainly from territorial fights among organized crime groups. The youth just happened to be the "tools" used in the enforcement and intimidation trade of drug traffickers (Miller, Geertz, Cutter, 1962). In the 1980's Americans noticed a rapid increase in youth gang violence and severity of violence. The relationship between youth gangs, drugs and violence are varied. Even within a particular gang, different gang members harbor different attitudes about drugs and violence. Some individual members feel their lives have no place for drugs. Their sense of loyalty and honor are reasons enough for membership. Thus, any act of violence committed by these members are strictly to enforce honor or territorial violations by rival gang members. Conversely, the drug connection is strong for many other youth gang members. Some gang members become involved in drug trafficking on their own and some through involvement in gang cliques. The lure of fast, easy money and a ready supply of customers is often an overwhelming temptation for the gang member. The connection to violence is more complex. Drug use, drug trafficking and violence all overlap considerably within the gang creating a domino-effect. Gang involvement often appears to increase drug-use, drug trafficking, gun-carrying and violence in order to prolong involvement with drug sales. Some other suggestions for the drug and violence connection are 1) the effects of the "high" created by the drug can induce violent behavior by the gang member, 2) the high cost of the drug often impels users to commit violent crime in order to obtain money for purchasing drugs and 3) "systemic" violence is a common feature of the drug culture considering protection or expansion of drug markets, retaliation against competitors or suppliers who violate "the rules" and maintenance of the drug organization (Goldstein, 1985). The relationship of gangs, drugs and violence carries over to the fact that gangs are migrating away from major urban centers into U.S. cities once thought to be immune from crime and violence associated with youth gangs. Reasons for these moves are varied. With the rapid change in the U.S. economy and rapid growth outside of major cities, some gangs have recognized new markets opening up and have taken measures to exploit these markets. Some gang members migrate due to individual or family moves, while others made permanent residential changes as a result of court orders. This phenomena of gang migration may also contribute to increased levels of violence nationwide by youth gangs. The establishment of new gang territories and the enforcement aspects related to this are prime factors for increased violence involving youth gangs. Migrating youth gang members also face the possibility of existing gangs, which may contribute to the gang/violence connection. When encountering this problem the migrating gang member has two simple choices. He may choose to remain loyal to his previous gang affiliation and pursue a rivalry with the existing gang or he may simply assimilate into the existing gang breaking ties to his old gang. Studies have shown that the choice to assimilate with an indigenous gang or retain ties to an older gang and recruit new members is equal (Hagedorn, 1988).
In general, gang members actively engage in more drug use, drug trafficking and violence than non-gang youth. The fact that membership alone in a gang is a reason for higher incidents of violence committed by gang members. The fact that they also are involved with all aspects of drug use and sales does not automatically explain increased violence by youth gang members. The most important factor to be considered is that the typical gang member was involved with violence even before he joined a gang. Risk factors such as social disorganization, low socioeconomic status, academic failure, deviant attitudes and low commitment to positive peers all contribute to a violent behavior pattern early in life which is carried on during the phase of gang membership.
Youth gang problems within the Unites States are proliferating. Even in areas where the population seemed removed from the problems of the inner-city are now effected. At the same time the face of the gangs are changing. Smaller, less organized gangs are emerging and drug oriented gangs are on the rise. Gangs are now organized by ethnicity more so then ever and are more violent. We are seeing more gang organization at the local level rather than due to migration as was erroneously perceived earlier in the 1990's. The different social and law enforcement agencies are making significant progress in identifying major risk factors for young adults and teenagers, but much more research is needed in order to effectively deal with a problem that is not going away for some time.