is a "Gang?"
There is no one accepted definition of a gang and the definitions
which currently exist vary widely. Were there one common definition, I propose it to be as follows:
a group of
two or more individuals who share an on-going relationship and support one other individually or
collectively in the recurring commission of delinquent and/or criminal behavior.
That definition is broad enough to capture any size group which
promotes delinquency and criminality yet specific enough to be
useful in court. The broadest definition possible is needed in
order to intervene with deviant gang youth at an early age.
Who is a Gang Member?
Any child may become a member of a gang. A gang member is defined,
minimally, as anyone who thinks he or she is a gang member. However,
youths who are labeled by others as gang members but who do not
with people who are breaking the law are not gang
Police labeling of a youth as a gang member may have the greatest
impact of all in terms of how our system of justice views a
given youth. In some cases, if labeling theory is correct, a
youth who is defined and treated as a gang member by the police may,
over time, accept that definition of him- or herself.
On the other hand, there are youths who claim to be members of a
gang, who associate with other known gang members, and who
participate in illegal activities with or on behalf of the gang.
They are gang members, regardless of whether any individual act of
criminality they commit was committed for personal reasons or
There are formal
mechanisms for determining gang membership which may or may not
involve an initiation ceremony.
Demographic Characteristics of American
Statistics on gangs and their members are inherently inaccurate.
The Number of Gangs and Gang Members
As of the last official count (1999), there were approximately 840,500
known gang members in the United States in 26,000 gangs. The number of cities and counties reporting the presence of gangs
is increasing. While the number of gangs may have shown a
slight decline in the recent past, the number of people who are joining gangs has been growing over the past
two decades and shows no sign of declining.
number of gang members found in rural and suburban areas increases
and decreases from one year to the next, it is important to note that gangs are no longer an
exclusive inner-city phenomenon. They, and
their members, are now found across the entire landscape the
United States and in other countries around the world.
Age and Social Class Composition of Gangs
The proportion gang members who are adults (over 18 years of age for
has been increasing over the past several years. This is due, in part, to the
increasingly difficult task of making the leap from gang
activity to legitimate employment. It may also be due to the
economic support gang activity may provide, the need for
maintaining social contacts within the gang, and the individual gang
for all types of gang-related activity.
The proportion of gang members who are under 15 years of age has
also been increasing. Young boys and girls continue to be recruited into gangs
because they may escape serious punishment if caught in gang-related behavior due to their status
as juveniles. They are also
recruited in order to increase the size of the gang and/or to
replace the loss of older gang members to injury, death,
incarceration, and migration away from the gang.
In a recent survey, it was found that one-half of gang members
are from the underclass - the class below the lower class. Gangs'
presence in large public housing projects and their
comparative absence in wealthier settings suggests more gang members
than are from the middle- or upper-class. The survey found no gang
members identified as having come from upper-class
environments. That may or may not be accurate.
Composition of Gangs
While gangs have been and remain male-dominated, the increasing
presence of females is clear. Estimates of female gang
affiliation ranging from 8 percent to 38 percent are alarming. The
implications for the children they bear is equally disturbing.
The proportion of gang members who are male or female varies from
community to community and may also vary between neighborhoods
within the same community.
The majority of known female gang members, while not as violent as
their male counterparts, are involved in assaults and other violent
behavior. They are becoming more like male delinquents as concerns
the types of crimes they commit.
and Ethnic Composition of Gangs
Although the majority of known gang members in the United States
are of Hispanic descent, it appears many, if not all, racial and ethnic groups are represented in
population. Given their rate of birth and the impact of social
discrimination against them, it is conceivable that the proportion
of Hispanics in the gang population may rise.
Historically speaking and today, gang members in the United States are from the most
marginalized groups in the society - either newly immigrating groups or
other racial or ethnic groups which have not been fully accepted by Caucasians.
Some gangs are nearly exclusive in their ethnic or racial composition while
others are a mix of several different ethnicities and races. This, too,
is not a static situation and changes from time to time and from one
community to another.
Gangs Aren't New
Gangs have been with us for
centuries. They are not necessarily a
sign of decay and doom. Rather, they are a normal, albeit problematic,
part of many societies and may be symptomatic of other problems.
Kinds and Names of Gangs
The diversity in the kinds of gangs there are hints at the complexity
of the gang phenomenon which includes gangs with no single ideology or belief system
(youth- or street gangs) as well as those with an ideology (i.e.,
Skinheads, Aryan Brotherhood, Ku Klux Klan, Nation of Islam).
There are drug-selling gangs, street gangs, and turf-based neighborhood
gangs as well as short-lived gangs and gangs which that have been
around for generations.
Gangs' names may symbolize a feature in their neighborhood
(i.e., the name of a street, park, or valley) or any one of a dozen other things
and their names may change from time to time.
Supposed "nations" of gangs (i.e., Crips, Bloods,
People, Folk) are, in fact, not nations. They are, instead, a
collection of "sets," local groupings of gang youth who use the name
"Crip," for example, in their name but add a local
identifier such as "14th Street." Thus, "14th Street
Crips" identifies the gang as a
set within the supposed Crip nation.
But the 14th Street Crips may not know any of
the Crips in other local Crip sets, let alone Crips in other cities
or countries. There are thousands of sets of gangs and precious few are organized
to coordinate their activities with the activities of other sets. In fact, they are
often at odds with other sets, even within their own
Gangs are a society within society, complete with their own subculture. Perhaps the most difficult barrier to overcome in dealing
effectively with gang members is the influence of the subculture to which they
belong. It is a subculture separate from but squarely rooted in our
own. It thrives and preys upon the culture you and I think of
as American society, but, depending upon their level of affiliation
with a gang, their members have little regard or respect for it
except for its emphasis on making money.
The gang subculture serves a number of purposes - it is
functional and, as such, important to its members. Some
of them will die for it, if need be. Others will kill for
To reduce the attractiveness of the gang subculture requires substituting other
structures which will meet the same needs the gang subculture fulfills.
That is, if we want to keep youths from joining gangs, we must offer
legitimate structures through which their needs for security, power,
respect, income, etc., can be met. Understanding gang members as members of another or different
culture may assist in efforts to draw peripheral members away from the
gang culture and to dissuade non-members from joining it.
The Structure of Gangs
There is considerable variation in the structure of gangs. Some
researchers suggest a gang must be well organized in order to
be called a gang. I
learned that it is misleading, however, to view a loosely organized
yet ongoing group of youths who knowingly
support one another in the recurring commission of criminal acts as "not
really a gang. It's just a bunch of kids acting
out." In fact, they are a gang.
The level of organization or structure of a gang has little to do with being
part of the gang subculture and acting in ways that are socially
repugnant and vile. When a youth joins a gang, regardless of
its degree of structure or organization, he or she has left the fold and is a
danger to him- or herself and everyone else in the community.
Why Gangs Form
In order to join a gang, it must exist. The important question,
then, is Why do gangs form? I consider this the question we should
focus on rather than on why some youths join gangs. It moves our
attention from the youth who join to the causes of gang formation in the
There are physiological, psychological,
and social/cultural reasons why gangs form and, therefore, why certain youths
join them. Maslow tells us that, until an individual's lower level physiological and safety needs are met,
his or her higher level needs for
belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization may not be achieved. It is rare to find a gang member who comes from an
environment in which the these lower level needs are being fulfilled
by the social institutions in the community (i.e., family, faith, school,
and commerce), let alone many of the higher level needs.
Were I to summarize what I learned about why gangs form it would
be that there is no one satisfactory explanation. When, however, one
takes into account the impact of a variety of factors - social
of a (healthy) family; feelings
of desperation and powerlessness; abuse,
fear, and a lack of security; economic
of self esteem; the
lack of acceptable rites of passage to adulthood; the
lack of alternative legitimate activities;
a pathological offender's needs;
influence of migrating gang members; mass
media portrayals of gangs and gang members; because
they can - a basis for
understanding their formation becomes apparent.
You can also read
the extended "Conclusion" as found at the end of the
chapter on Why Gangs Form.
are Gangs Found?
Gang members have inundated practically every corner and crevice of
American society. They are found in schools, at the
workplace, in the military, in hospitals ... you name it. Their pervasiveness assures their growth and the damage they will
continue to do to our way of life unless positive action is taken to
reduce their number and influence.
How Youths Find Out About Gangs
There is little parents can do to keep their child from learning
about gangs. The sources of information about them are widespread
and include peers, television, movies, the Internet, and gangsta rap music. Some
of the sources of information on gangs are aggressive and may
include gang-member-parents and gang recruiters.
How to Join a Gang
There are several ways to join a
gang. Most involve suffering injury or inflicting injury
(physical or financial) upon other people. Some gangs have no
initiation rites while others initiate but exclude some new
members from the ceremony.
Crimes Gang Members Commit
As compared to non-gang delinquents, gang members are more
violent and a greater danger to society regardless of their age,
gender, or race. They murder thousands of Americans every year - gang
members and innocent bystanders alike.
The crimes gang members commit are, in large part, the same as those
committed by non-gang offenders. They vary in that some crimes
require the cooperation of other offenders (as in drug- or theft
rings) and in the nature of intra- and inter gang
In many communities, gang members are responsible for a disproportionate amount of
the delinquency and crime committed by juveniles. Focusing
prevention, intervention, and suppression (enforcement) efforts on gang members will do more to reduce a community's delinquency
and crime rates than would focusing on non-gang member delinquents.
The Fluidity of Gangs
and Gang Members
The world of gangs is ever changing. People join them and leave them.
one gang then quit and join another. Gang members stay in one place
and they move to other locations. In other words, they are an elusive population at best.
Their internal leadership may change as may their size,
composition, and the types of offenses they commit. They can dominate in some
neighborhoods for a time then disappear.
The migration of gang members within communities and from one
community to another represents a serious and growing threat to the quality of
life in neighborhoods throughout the country.
Graffiti and Other Identifiers
Gang members use a variety of ways in which to identify
themselves to one another and to outsiders including, but not limited to, tattoos,
wearing certain kinds or colors of clothing or accessories, and the use
of graffiti and hand signs. Older and more experienced gang members may avoid
identification in order to avoid detection by police and
rival gang members. Wannabes, on the other hand, may boldly
exhibit gang identifiers in hopes of being recognized as a gangster.
Getting Out of a Gang
A gang member's life expectancy may be short and membership in
a gang may also be for short periods of time. While some gang members
remain members until they die, many leave their gang within
one to two years.
Getting out of a gang does not always mean being harmed,
although this can and does happen to some who attempt to leave. Intervention efforts are aimed at existing gang-affiliated youth
and are complicated by potential threats of harm if someone wants to
leave the gang.