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Based on a multitude of studies, scholars note that youth may be “pulled” and/or “pushed” into gang membership. Pulls are features that attract youth, such as the perception of increased reputation and social status, the desire to be with friends and/or family who are already gang-involved, the promise of money, drugs, and/or excitement, and cultural pride and identification with one’s neighborhood. In contrast, because of the high levels of neighborhood crime and violence, some youth perceive gangs as providing protection and/or are fearful of the consequences if they do not join.
It is important to note that the pushes and pulls of gang membership are not necessarily mutually exclusive, in that they may simultaneously impact a youth’s decision to join a gang. However, by and large, numerous studies have found that youth themselves are more likely to report being “pulled” into the gang. This is especially evident in widespread accounts of youth who report joining the gang based on the social desire to be around gang-involved friends and/or family. In comparison, youth less frequently report being coerced or actively recruited to join the gang. This finding is important to note, since the latter is commonly (though erroneously) believed to be the primary reason youth join gangs, with many states developing legislation to criminalize and punish active recruitment.
Finally, it is also important to point out that the process of joining a gang is a gradual one. Youth may begin at a “gang-marginal status” by hanging around other gang members or having older family members in the gang, leading some to join later and others to remain in a marginal status or to disassociate entirely. For those who join, some may become increasingly embedded within the gang life, while others remain at the periphery. That is, gang membership patterns are dynamic and multilayered and are not reliably reducible to a simple gang-versus-nongang perspective.
It is commonly repeated that once a person joins a gang, he or she can never get out (the so-called “blood-in, blood-out” assertion). However, for many youth membership in a gang is a fleeting occurrence, with a large proportion remaining in the gang for only a relatively short period of time (i.e., for a year or two). The processes by which youth leave gangs, often referred to as “desistance,” are similar to the “push” and “pull” processes by which youth join gangs, although the specific reasons are often very different. The reasons individuals report for leaving the gang include growing out of the gang life; disillusionment with the gang life; settling down, getting a stable job, and/or family needs; unanticipated aspects of the gang life; gang violence experienced by the individual or someone close to the individual; and a constant future risk of being a victim of gang violence. While the topic of gang desistance is relatively newer across the field of gang research, preliminary evidence indicates that youth are more likely to be “pushed” out of the gang life because of the very same factors that “pulled” them into the gang in the first place—fear of the consequences of violence and victimization.
How youth leave a gang is also instructive in understanding the gang process. Similar to the gang-joining process, desisting from gang membership is best described as gradual, taking place over an extended period of time. This is understandable, after all, since desisting from gangs involves disassociating and severing social ties with friends and/or family members who are gang-involved and may entail many attempts, both cognitively and behaviorally. Also, this process may be interrupted or entirely negated because of outside influences, such as the perception by rival gangs and/or law enforcement that the individual is still an active gang member. Importantly, although it is commonly repeated otherwise, the available evidence demonstrates that most individuals stated that they left the gang without the fear or experience of physical consequences from the gang.
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.
As has been observed and written about extensively, the racial/ethnic composition of a community’s gang problem is largely a reflection of the racial/ethnic composition of the community itself, once socioeconomic factors are taken into account. Gangs tend to emerge in the most disadvantaged areas and thus naturally attract the disadvantaged youth residing in those areas. Therefore, a discussion of the racial/ethnic composition of gangs is largely a discussion of the socioeconomic variables of that area.
Reflecting the racial/ethnic divide along socioeconomic lines across the country, the largest percentage of gang members in the New York Gang Study belong to minorities, with around half reported as Hispanic/Latino and approximately one-third as African American/black. Around 10 to 15 percent of gang members are reported as white/Caucasian. A multisite study of school-aged youth finds comparable proportions. In contrast, a national survey of youth reports a much lower percentage of blacks (25 percent) and Hispanics (19 percent). Clearly, there is much variation across cities, counties, and states in the racial/ethnic composition of gangs, but ultimately, this descriptive characteristic of the gang problem is best regarded as a reflection of the social and economic inequalities that persist across the United States.
There is no agreed-upon gang typology. Numerous attempts at classifying the various types of gangs have been made. Two common features of these attempts are: (1) classifying gangs by the type of criminal activity they are involved in; and (2) classifying gangs based on their names and whether they are derived from national gang names or localized, neighborhood gang names. Both of these methods are subject to a critical flaw frequently observed regarding street gangs. In terms of the first type of classification, by and large, gangs as a group are involved in a variety of criminal activities. During active periods of membership, the offending rate of youth and young adults involved in gangs increases for a multitude and wide range of offenses. The phenomenon is referred to as “cafeteria-style offending,” serving as a reminder that reducing gang types to one offense or another is substantially misleading. The method of classifying gangs by their names is also inherently flawed, since many gangs with national-sounding names have little if any connection to the larger, long-standing gangs from which their names are derived. In many instances, the connection between local and national gangs based on the similarity in names is merely assumed rather than conclusively demonstrated and documented. Local gang members state that they typically adopt larger gang names to project a more widespread and powerful presence in their area. Gangs frequently adopt a mixture of cultural signs and symbols based on their appeal to local gang members, resulting in what has been referred to as a “hybrid gang” culture.
The types of gangs that often receive the most attention from media are characterized as gangs with nationally recognized names, portrayed as highly organized, extremely violent, and focused on one criminal operation, such as drug trafficking. The public is often left with the impression that all gangs, and their gang members, are excessively violent and out of control. These characterizations do more than enough to promote fear and little to help develop successful responses to the gang problem in any given community. In reality, there are a variety of gangs across the United States. Understanding how gangs and their members are both different and similar is essential in developing and implementing appropriate prevention and intervention programs, as well as targeted control strategies.
Due to inherent limitations in law enforcement data and ethnographic studies, determining the proportion of adolescents and young adults who join street gangs is best accomplished through self-report studies of a specified target population. Based on a national study properly weighted to be representative of all youth, recent research finds that approximately 8 percent of all youth have joined a gang by their twenties. This estimate is also highly dynamic. In a multisite study in cities with known and significant gang problems, the percentage of youth who joined a gang peaked in the early teens and declined precipitously thereafter. These estimates, of course, vary across localities and are highly contingent on the type of gang problem observed in a given community. Studies conducted in some urban cities with long-standing gang problems have found that 15 percent or more of youth joined a gang at some point during their adolescent and youth-adult years.
A common misconception surrounding gangs is that once a person joins, he or she stays in the gang for an extended period of years. By following subjects over time, longitudinal research studies provide the only reliable method to determine the duration in which a person remains in a gang. Based on multiple studies, in multiple cities, across multiple research projects, it is repeatedly found that most youth who join a gang do not remain in it for an extended period of time. For the majority of youth who join a gang, the average amount of time they remain active in the gang is one to two years, and fewer than 1 in 10 gang members report involvement for four or more years. However, the more embedded a person is in a gang—e.g., the more his or her self-identity is derived from the gang—the longer that person will remain in the gang, which negatively impacts efforts at severing gang ties.
In sum, joining a gang is not a rare event, relatively speaking. However, a corollary finding also emerges from these systematic studies: Even in the most gang-ridden areas across the United States, most youth do not join a gang. Comparatively, law enforcement agencies report older, more adult-aged gang members in the New York Gang Study (in 2011, approximately two-thirds were 18 and over), reflecting the tendency of agencies to focus primarily on the more embedded (hard-core) members of gangs. This is especially the case in urban areas with long-standing gang problems, where adult-aged members make up a clear majority; in newer gang-problem areas outside the larger cities, this proportion is noticeably smaller.
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.
Risk factors are variables increase the likelihood of the outcome in question—in this case, gang membership. Gang research scholars have discovered a multitude of risk factors that are statistically linked to gang joining. These individual risk factors span the many dimensions in a youth’s life and are typically grouped into five categories (called “domains”): individual, family, school, peer, and neighborhood/community. Importantly, however, these extensive research studies have demonstrated that there is no one risk factor (or even domain) responsible for gang joining; rather, it is the accumulation of multiple risk factors across multiple domains that greatly increases gang joining. Thus, put another way, gang joining is not reducible to a single risk factor (e.g., single-parent household), since some youth with the risk factor may not join a gang, and some youth without the risk factor may join. It is far more profitable, then, to assess (and ultimately address) the collection of risk factors across the five social domains to prevent gang joining.
Gangs and gang violence have become increasingly complex, lethal, and resistant to prevention and control over the years. Overreliance on one strategy is unlikely to produce fundamental changes in the scope and severity of a community’s gang problem. Instead, communities should adopt a comprehensive, multifaceted, collaborative approach that involves prevention strategies for youth at risk of gang joining, intervention strategies for youth and young adults who are gang-involved, and suppression strategies in areas where gang violence threatens the public safety of a community.
A community’s responses to its gang problem must be based on a solid theoretical understanding of gangs—their social patterns and individual member behaviors—as well as programs and practices supported by systematic research and successful experience in the field. Once a community acknowledges that a youth street gang problem exists, a thorough assessment is needed to identify specific components of the problems, analyze the causes, and identify the resources currently available, as well as the resources needed. Such an assessment can reliably measure the scope and depth of the youth and street gang problem in a given community.
Community stakeholder participation should ideally include active engagement from law enforcement agencies, schools, grassroots organizations, youth agencies, government agencies, and civic organizations. Using the assessment as a foundation, key stakeholders can develop a plan to respond to their gang problem that is tailored to the unique needs and resources of that community. Ideally, a community should develop a continuum of developmentally appropriate programs and strategies to target gang-involved individuals at all ages and risk levels. A community should implement strategies that have been demonstrated to work.
There is no quick, easy fix when responding to street and youth gang problems in a community. Both emerging and entrenched gang problems are the consequence of years of compounding, complex factors. A comprehensive, systematic approach to address these complexities will take focused determination and hard work.
Youth often report joining a gang for protection. However, as numerous research studies have shown, the risk and rate of victimization, especially violent victimization, increases substantially while youth are in a gang. This finding is notably similar to that of the increase in the criminal offending rate during periods of active gang membership. Thus, there is a seemingly paradoxical relationship between the expectation that joining a gang will provide protection from violence and the fact that actual rate (and risk) of victimization while in a gang increases. Research specifically examining this issue points to a compelling explanation: Given the “choice” between seemingly random acts of street violence when not in a gang versus the more structured and less random acts within the gang culture (including the sense of group protection that being part of a gang engenders), individuals are more likely to choose to belong to a gang. That is, the source of the risk of violence is qualitatively different (e.g., from a rival gang) while in a gang, which individuals cognitively perceive as being more predictable and manageable, and thus preferable. This explanation is important to consider when developing effective interventions with current gang members, since increased levels of neighborhood street violence may counteract incentives for individuals to leave the gang.
Following individuals over time (i.e., longitudinally) has also afforded researchers the opportunity to examine the long-term consequences of gang membership. The effects of gang membership, especially for members who remained in the gang for longer periods and/or were deeply embedded in the gang life, have been shown to negatively impact individuals well after leaving the gang. Some of the negative outcomes linked to prolonged gang membership include dropping out of school, early parenthood, and lack of or unstable employment. These long-term consequences are supplemental to the increased risk of being arrested, having a criminal record, and incarceration—which stems from the increased involvement in criminal offending while in a gang—which further reduces the probability of a successful transition from adolescence to adulthood. Further, in a recent study specifically examining this issue, researchers found that adolescent gang membership was linked to other public health issues, such as alcohol and drug abuse and/or dependence, poor general health, and poor mental health during adulthood. Thus, gang membership, especially long-term membership and/or increased embeddedness in the gang, exacts a toll that extends far beyond periods of active membership.