Into The Abyss:
A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs

by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.        
Michael K. Carlie
Continually updated.

~ Table of Contents ~
Home | Foreword | Preface | Orientation

What I Learned | Conclusions
End Note |
| Appendix
Site Map / Contents
| New Research

Up-To-Date Gang-Related News

Topic 1:
The Number of Gangs and Gang Members

The United States, during a time period comprising roughly the last three decades of the 20th century, experienced gang problems in more identified localities than at any other time in history. (Miller, 2001, p. vi)  One of the best documented developments ... was a striking increase in the growth of gang problems in the nation's smaller cities, towns, and villages. The size of the average gang city population fell from 182,000 to 34,000. (ibid, p. x)

Miller (2001) has produced a remarkable study, one which identifies the number of cities and counties in the United States with a gang presence. In the 1970s only 201 American cities reported having gangs but by 1998 a total of 1,487 communities reported the presence of gangs (Miller, 2001, page).   That's an increase of 640% in about 25 years, far higher than the growth of the United States population or the population of the cities and counties which gang members inhabit.

According to the findings of the 2004 National Youth Gang Survey (reported April 2006), police noted the presence of "gang problems" in their communities as shown in Table 1 below. As you can see, nearly 80% of the larger cities reporting with populations of 50,000 or more residents experienced gang problems during the period from 2002-2004. On the other hand, only 12.3% of the rural counties reporting indicated they had a gang problem. (Highlights of the 2004 National Youth Gang Survey, p. 1)

Table 1: Law Enforcement Agency Reports of Gang Problems, 1996-2004


Average Percentage of
Respondents Reporting Gang Problems.

Area Type




Rural counties 24.3 13.5 12.3
Smaller cities (population 2,500 to 49,999) 36.5 25.9 28.4
Suburban counties 56.0 40.8 40.0
Larger cities (population 50,000 or more) 85.6 77.6 79.8

Source: Highlights of the 2004 National Youth Gang Survey (Published April 2006)

According to the 2004 National Youth Gang Survey, "approximately 760,000 gang members and 24,000 gangs were active in more than 2,900 jurisdictions that city and county law enforcement agencies served in 2004. (Highlights of the 2004 National Youth Gang Survey, p. 1)

Once confined to the largest urban areas (i.e., Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis, New York City, Detroit, Miami), gangs now appear in nearly every city with over 100,000 inhabitants and in suburban and rural settings as well in the United States and elsewhere.

Over the past several years, there has been an increase in reported youth violence and youth gang activity in both large and small Canadian communities. Public pressure and concern for community safety has made this a major issue in many communities. (Solicitor General of Canada, 1994)

Howell reported that "Youth gang membership ... varies by locality. Surveys of urban youth samples indicate that from 14% to 30% of adolescents join gangs at some point." (Howell, 1998, page.)  This is far higher than the often touted "one per- centers" that some criminal justice practitioners talk about. They refer to gang members as the "one per centers" in that they believe they represent only one percent of a typical community's population or its minority/ethnic populations.

The newest data is from a report titled "Highlights of the 2002 National Youth Gang
Survey," written by Arlen Egley, Jr., and Aline K. Major, and published in April of 2004. The following are the major findings of that report.

Based on survey results, it is estimated that, in 2002, youth gangs were active in more than 2,300 cities with a population of 2,500 or more and in more than 550 jurisdictions served by county law enforcement agencies. These results are comparable to those from recent NYGC (National Youth Gang Center) surveys and provide preliminary evidence that the overall number of jurisdictions experiencing gang problems in a given year may be stabilizing.

It is also estimated that approximately 731,500 gang members and 21,500 gangs were active in the United States in 2002. The estimated number of gang members between 1996 and 2002 decreased 14 percent and the estimated number of jurisdictions experiencing gang problems decreased 32 percent. This difference is largely a result of the decline in reported gang problems by smaller cities and rural counties that have also reported comparatively fewer gang members over survey years. Larger cities and  suburban counties accounted for approximately 85 percent of the estimated number of gang members in 2002.
(Highlights of the 2002 Youth Gang Survey, April 2004, page, color added for emphasis)

In the year 2000, The National Youth Gang Center reported that

More than 26,000 gangs were estimated to be active in the United States in 1999, down 9 percent from 1998. More than 840,500 gang members were estimated to be active in the United States in 1999. This number represents an 8-percent increase from 1998, countering the decline from 1996 to 1998 and approaching the estimated high of nearly 846,500 members in 1996. (Egley, 2000, p. 1, color added for emphasis)

Surprisingly, there was no significant difference in gang membership or pressure to join gangs between the rural and urban samples [of 183 seventh- to twelfth grade Nevada students]. Differences did emerge, however, on other gang and violence indicators. Urban students were significantly more likely to report having friends in gangs and being threatened by gangs, and they had significantly heightened concerns for personal safety, gangs, and violence in their schools and communities. (Evans, et al., 1999)

The states with the largest number of cities reporting gangs in 1998 were "California (363), Illinois (261), Texas (156), Florida (125), and Ohio (86)." (Miller, 2001, p. ix)  

Miller has stated that "Youth gangs are amorphous and difficult to count." (ibid, p. 1) In fact, the number of gang members reported depends upon a number of factors. What criteria are being used by local authorities to identify individuals who are members of a gang? That is, how are "gang" and "gang member" being defined? A change in the definition of a gang can radically alter the number of gangs identified.

Field Note: The rumor that this Mid-West town once had the highest concentration of gang members in the United States isn't true, according to three of the officers in the gang unit. They explained that, when the department scrambled to deal with the then new gang problem in the late 1980s, "The original response was to deny that there was a problem. In time, the department had to acknowledge what everyone could now clearly see - there were gangs in our community." 

The department initiated a process of identifying who the gang members were and "The criteria used to accomplish this were so broad that more people were included than perhaps should have been. Since that time the department has refined the criteria and, using this new definition, the number of documented gang members has been reduced. One of the most important changes was making a distinction between 'active' and 'inactive' gang members." An inactive gang member is someone with whom the police have had no interaction for two years.

Later in the evening two of the officers explained that this is a somewhat problematic distinction since, during those two years "the individual may simply not have been caught doing the illegal things they were doing, he may have been gang banging in another city or state, or he may have been in prison and could be gang banging there."

One officer expressed a concern that, due to the political flack unleashed by the presence of gangs, "The new criteria being used were implemented to simply make it look like the problem was being reduced. It's all a matter of playing around with definitions and statistics ... the problem is still there, in other words. Back in the early '90s when they [the public] heard there were about 2,500 gang members in town we heard 'You have to get that number down!'  Of course, one way to do that is to manipulate the criteria being used to define what a gang member is."

The number of gang members reported also depends upon whether local authorities choose to recognize a gang presence in their communities or not. Denial of a gang presence is not uncommon, therefore reports of "no gang activity" result in an inaccurate count of the number of gangs and gang members.

While there are several ways to identify if someone is in a gang, not all gang members wear or otherwise exhibit gang identifiers (i.e., clothes of a certain color, tattoos). So, it's anyone's best guess as to exactly how many gangs and gang members there are in the United States - or in any country. The other countries included in this study (England, Canada, and the Netherlands) are experiencing similar difficulties. The best guess is that the number of gang members in the United States has been increasing since the 1970s.  (Miller, 2001, page)

As to the size of various gangs, they can range from just a few members to hundreds. And their size varies over time. The largest gangs have been reported to have thousands of members, but this is difficult to verify.


Additional Resources: You can explore the latest findings on gangs nationwide by taking a look at the 2009 National Gang Threat Assessment  ( or  prepared by the National Alliance of Gang Investigator Associations (NAGIA).

Highlights of the 2006 national Youth Gang Survey

2002 Michael K. Carlie
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the author and copyright holder - Michael K. Carlie.