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 10:
Building Upon a Pathological Offender's Needs

Sociopaths are "outstanding" members of society in two senses: politically, they command attention because of the inordinate amount of crime they commit, and psychologically, they elicit fascination because most of us cannot fathom the cold, detached way they repeatedly harm and manipulate others. (Mealy, 1995, page)

Why Gangs Form

What Gangs Provide Why Youths Join
Gangs form by building upon a pathological offender's needs. A setting in which an individual can act out his or her aggression. To vent their 
anger and rage in an accepting setting.

Explanation in Brief: 
Gangs form as a result of recruitment by pathological offenders or as a result of their attraction to disaffected youth.

Sociopaths, who comprise only 3-4% of the male population and less than 1% of the female population, are thought to account for approximately 20% of the United States' prison population and between 33% and 80% of the population of chronic criminal offenders.

Furthermore, whereas the "typical" U.S. burglar is estimated to have committed a median five crimes per year before being apprehended, chronic offenders - those most likely to be sociopaths - report committing upward of fifty crimes per annum and sometimes as many as two or three hundred. Collectively, these individuals are thought to account for over 50% of all crimes in the U.S. (Mealey, 1995, page)

Some youths are abnormal or pathological, filled with anger and rage and easily provoked into violence. They are marginalized by their families, school teachers and administrators, justice personnel, and others. Time spent in confinement for their acts brings them into association with other youths who exhibit similar tendencies. They may begin to associate while in confinement and continue their relationship upon their return to the community. Alone or together, they may also form a gang by recruiting other disaffected youths to join them in their activities. 

Lewis Yablonsky is a well established American gang researcher whose research on gangs began in the 1960's. A key element in his latest work, Gangsters: Fifty Years of Madness, Drugs, and Death on the Streets of America (1997), addresses the pathological nature of some gang members - particularly core members and instigators of violent gang activities. According to Yablonsky

Most violent-gang behavior is sociopathic; however, many but certainly not all gangsters can be characterized as having sociopathic personalities. A comprehensive analysis of the concept of sociopathology and the sociopathic personality, in my view, is vital to understanding gangsters and the overall gang problem.

[Gang members'] pathology becomes most apparent in their [lack of remorse in the] treatment of other people. In contrast with my view of violent gangsters as sociopaths, some gang theorists and researchers persist in perceiving contemporary gangs as 'families' and normal adolescent groupings. These viewpoints present a distorted perception of gangs as normal rather than pathological collectivities. The sociopath factor explains how and why gangsters can kill without remorse or regret. (Yablonsky, 1997, pp. 101-103)

Yablonsky's research confirmed an observation I made in the field when he wrote

A gangster can commit horrendous acts of violence in the context of gangbanging, and it is sanctioned by his gang. After a period of participating in a variety of dehumanized acts ... they tend to become unfeeling. Through this gang process of desensitizing their behavior, they become capable of committing spontaneous acts of senseless violence without feeling concern or guilt. (Yablonsky, 1997, p. 21)

Gangs not only provide a setting in which pathological offenders may act out their aggression, some gangs encourage that behavior. For example, gang initiation ceremonies ritualize aggression. Acts of aggression against rival gang members are expected, perceived of as normal, and often rewarded. They include beatings, mutilations, drive-by-shootings, and murder.

In his book entitled Inside the Criminal Mind, Stanton E. Samenow states that

Criminals cause crime - not bad neighborhoods, inadequate parents, television, schools, drugs, or unemployment. Crime resides within the minds of human beings and is not caused by social conditions. Once we as a society recognize this simple fact, we shall take measures radically different from current ones. To be sure, we shall continue to remedy intolerable social conditions, for this is worthwhile in and of itself. But we shall not expect criminals to change because of such efforts. (Samenow, p. 6)

Samenow doesn't refer to delinquents and criminals as pathological. Rather, he believes it is the way they think that results in their delinquent or criminal behavior.

We must understand how criminals think and realize that they have a fundamentally different view of the world from that of people who are basically responsible. (ibid, p. 5)

Behavior is largely a product of thinking. Everything we do is preceded, accompanied, and followed by thinking... (A) criminal is not equipped to be responsible... The criminal must learn to identify and then abandon thinking patterns that have guided his behavior for years. He must be taught new thinking patterns that are self-evident and automatic for responsible people but are totally foreign to him. (ibid, pp. 6-7)

Samenow is convinced that the traditional and widely accept way of thinking about criminality - that it is "symptomatic of a deep-seated psychological or sociological problem" (ibid, p. 9) - is fundamentally incorrect and has led us to offer solutions for reducing delinquency and criminality which are ineffective and inappropriate.

As to the tendency to psychologize offenders, Samenow states that:

We, the public, may be so revolted by the gruesomeness of a crime that we conclude that only a sick person would be capable of such an act. But our personal reaction is totally irrelevant to understanding the criminal. True, what these (offenders do) is not a normal, everyday event. But the key question is, what are these (offenders) really like? A detailed and lengthy examination of the mind of a criminal will reveal that it is anything but sick. The criminal is rational, calculating, and deliberate in his actions. (ibid, p. 10)

When it comes to the argument that delinquent children and their older counterparts began their deviance as a result of being rejected, Samenow writes:

Criminals claim that they were rejected by parents, neighbors, schools, and employers, but rarely does a criminal say why he was rejected.  Even as a young child, he was sneaky and defiant, and the older he grew, the more he lied to his parents, stole and destroyed their property, and threatened them. He made life at home unbearable and he turned even innocuous requests into a battleground. He conned his parents to get whatever he wanted, or else we wore them down through endless argument. It was the criminal who rejected his parents rather than visa versa." (ibid, pp. 12-13)

Samenow tells us that sociological explanations for the cause of delinquency or criminality are "simplistic." (ibid, p. 13)  He states that:

If (sociological explanations for crime) were correct, we'd have far more criminals than we do. Most poor people are law-abiding, and most kids from broken homes are not delinquents. Children may bear the scars of neglect and deprivation for life, but most do not become criminals. The environment does have an effect, but people perceive and react to similar conditions of life very differently. (ibid, p. 13)

Concerning gangs, Samenow points out that not all families living in gang-infested neighborhoods have children who get involved in the gangs. (ibid, p. 13)  Similarly, how would sociologists explain the fact that families living in prosperous suburbs sometimes have children who are involved in gangs?

In summary, Samenow states that "No factor or set of factors - sociological, psychological, or biological - is sufficient to explain why a person becomes a criminal." (ibid, pp. 19-20)  While Samenow's focus is upon becoming delinquent, there may be something of value in his perspective as concern why some youths get involved in gangs (a form of delinquency) or not. Perhaps the emphasis on the sociological and psychological explanations for gang formation and gang joining are, at least in part, mistaken. We may need to focus more on the way gang youth think and be more concerned about changing their thinking patterns.

What is certain is that the causes of gang formation and gang joining are many. No one explanation will suffice and, as Samenow reminds us, no one perspective (i.e., sociological or psychological) will suffice.

I remember something a mentor of mine told me many years ago. He said "Bad families don't ruin good children. Bad children ruin otherwise good families."

While there are gangs with a core membership of pathological offenders, this alone does not explain the formation of all gangs. The migration of gang members from one community to another may also contribute to their formation.


Additional Resources: You can read about some of the disturbing crimes gang members commit in the following articles: 

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.