How extensive is the gang-drug-violence connection?

A common assertion regarding all gangs is their involvement in drug trafficking, distribution, and/or sales. However, while the overlap of gangs and drugs is well-documented, the proportion of gangs that are centered around drug distribution and that effectively control the operations thereof is relatively small. To be sure, gang members are significantly more likely to be involved in drug sales, but numerous research projects have revealed that these members rarely reinvest drug-sale profits into the gang as a whole; rather, they typically keep the profits for themselves. This finding, replicated over time and place, suggests a more nuanced description of the gang-drug connection, such that gangs provide an entrance into drug sales, primarily in street-level distribution, which when viewed superficially perpetuates the assertion that gangs control the distribution of drugs.

A related topic is the gang-drug-violence connection. Incidents involving gangs and drugs, resulting in the use of violence, attract greater coverage by the media, thus reinforcing this connection to the public. Gang violence, however, entails both expressive crimes and instrumental crimes. Expressive crimes pertain to incidents arising from ongoing conflicts and rivalries between gangs (e.g., disrespect, symbolic dominance), while instrumental crimes pertain to incidents surrounding economic functions (e.g., drug sales). While it is difficult to determine with precision the proportion of gang violence related to each, it has been demonstrated convincingly that instrumental-type incidents are much rarer than widely believed. In multiple studies over the past 25 years, a repeated finding is the lack of a drug component surrounding gang-related homicides. That is, in a large majority of these cases, the motives for the events pertained to the expressive and not the instrumental nature of gang violence. Thus, similar to drug sales, while the connection between gangs and violence is well-known, it is important to remain aware of the form this violence typically takes and not overgeneralize based on a few incidents, which can jeopardize the development of effective responses to local gang activity.

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1. How do youth become involved in gangs?
2. Why & how do youth leave a gang?
3. How extensive is the current gang problem?
4. What is the racial/ethnic composition of gangs?
5. What kind of gangs are there?
6. What percentage of adolescents join gangs & how long do they stay in?
7. How extensive is the gang-drug-violence connection?
8. What are the risk factors for gang membership?
9. What can be done about street & youth gangs?
10. What are short & long-term consequences to joining a gang?