In order to properly assess changes in the national gang problem over time, reliable indicators of the gang problem must be collected from a large and representative sample of law enforcement agencies across the United States. Between 1996 and 2012, the National Youth Gang Survey (NYGS) provided the only national data source for assessing long-term and annual changes in the gang problem across the following areas: (1) the emergence, presence, and stability patterns of gang problems within jurisdictions over time (prevalence measures); and (2) the relative size of the problem across such indicators as the number of gangs, the number of gang members, and the number of gang-related homicides and other crimes (magnitude measures).
In terms of the prevalence measures, the latest estimate from the NYGS finds that gangs are present in approximately 30 percent of the jurisdictions across the United States. This figure represents a sizeable drop from the mid-1990s, when 40 percent of jurisdictions reported a gang presence. Following a steady decline throughout the late 1990s, the gang prevalence measure reached its lowest point in 2001, steadily increased in subsequent years, and has remained relatively stable in recent years. The least amount of change occurred in the largest cities and suburban counties, where gang activity remains most prevalent, while the greatest amount of change has occurred in rural counties and smaller cities—especially the latter, where the gang prevalence rate fell nearly 10 percentage points from 2010 to 2012. Further, gang activity in smaller cities and rural counties is more likely to be transitory and unstable in nature, such that gang activity may emerge and dissipate in just a few years’ time. The frequency of this transitory pattern suggests that the emergence of gang activity does not necessarily indicate a protracted presence over time.
While prevalence measures provide a straightforward and simplified assessment of the gang problem, a better measure pertains to the size, or magnitude, of the gang problem in terms of the number of gangs and gang members, as well as the number of gang crimes (discussed separately below). From the latest NYGS estimate provided by law enforcement agencies, there are approximately 30,000 gangs and 850,000 gang members across the United States. Compared with the previous five-year average, the estimated number of gangs has increased 8 percent and the estimated number of gang members 11 percent. Accounting for the largest share of these increases are larger cities—more than 50 percent of the net increase in gangs and gang members over the past five years was due to overall increases in larger cities.
The decline in gang prevalence rates across smaller cities and rural counties, coupled with increases in the number of gangs and gang members in densely populated areas (especially larger cities), suggests that the gang problem is becoming more concentrated nationally in urban areas. While local reports to the contrary are not uncommon, it must be remembered that these results are based on a nationally representative sample of all law enforcement agencies across the United States, which is the only appropriate method to assess nationwide changes in gang activity.