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

Chapter 6:
Why Be Concerned About Gangs?

Some communities are literally held captive by the 
violence, intimidation and decay [caused by gangs]. 
(California Council on Criminal Justice, 1989, p. 16) 

There is nothing more insidious than these gangs. They are worse than the Mafia. Show me a year in New York where the Mafia indiscriminately killed 300 people. You can't. (Police Chief William Bratton, Los Angeles Police Department, Arizona Republic, 2002, as found in Katz and Webb, 2004, p.  128).


If you would have spoken with me about gangs a few years ago the conversation would have been very short - at least from my side of the discussion. Since that time not only have I learned much more about gangs, I've also become very concerned about the impact gangs and their members are having. Among my concerns are:


The harm they are doing to our children. Among the consequences of gang activity for children are school failure, family disruption, drug addiction, arrest, incarceration, disease, pregnancy, permanent injury, and premature death. Gang youth live with the fear of never being safe and always having to look over their shoulders. And they expose their family members to emotional and psychological trauma, injury, and death. Gangs destroy a child's future.

bulletGangs provide an environment in which deviant and illegal behaviors are learned and improved upon, and techniques for avoiding detection are learned
bulletGang members also reinforce deviant, anti-social, and illegal behavior among their members and promote socially irresponsible values, attitudes, and beliefs.

bulletWe should be concerned about gangs because gangs have grown to their highest number in American history. (Miller, 2001, page) Over the past thirty years the number of gangs and gang members in the United States has increased rather than decreased. 

bulletWhile it is true that, in 1995, only 1.4% (1,487) of America's 35,935 cities and only 23.3% (706) of the nation's 3,043 counties reported having gangs, those cities and counties are where the majority of the nation's population live. (Miller, 2001, page) While gangs aren't everywhere, they are found where the vast majority of Americans live. 

bulletNot only are more males getting involved in gangs, more females are getting involved in gangs. (Moore and Hagedorn, 2001, page The impact of gangs is spreading throughout our population.

bulletGangs wouldn't be an issue if it weren't for the fact that they seldom make a positive contribution to a community. They are, by definition, involved in criminal activity. Gangs are a destructive force for non-gang members, gang members, and the neighborhoods and communities in which they are found.

bulletGang youths commit a disproportionate amount of delinquency, over a longer period of time, and with the use of more violence than do non-gang youths. (Johnson, Webster, and Connors, 1995; Huff, 1998) As found in the 1997 Rochester Youth Development Study, "gang members account for twice as many acts of delinquency as one would expect given their share in the population." (Thornberry and Burch, 1997)  Although this finding is based on a study of only three cities, it is indicative of what is being found in cities across the country. (Johnson, Webster, and Connors, 1995)

bulletOne of the social costs of gangs is their impact upon police, juvenile officers, probation/parole officers, and other practitioners in the justice system. Among the consequences of gangs for justice practitioners are increased stress, the increased potential for harm and injury, and exposure to temptations to become either involved in graft and corruption or to exceed one's powers and become abusive. And the enormous amount of time needed to deal with gangs takes justice workers away from other tasks at which they are sorely needed.

The Impact of Gangs on Non-Gang Members

bulletUnless they are gang members themselves, parents of gang members suffer because they are losing their children. Non-gang parents are too often unable to retain control over their gang-member children or regain it. Their loss sometimes extends to the death of their child.

"We're living in fear of our own children!" 
So cried one Los Angeles resident on November 24, 2002, as the city faced it's twentieth murder in the past eight days, "most of it gang-related." L.A. is now facing its highest murder rate since 1996.
(Reported on-air by ABC News' Judy Muller)

bulletPeople who are residents in the neighborhood in which the gang operates are likely to lose any sense of security they may have once had and will likely be victimized directly or indirectly. Direct victimization includes, but is not limited to, having one's home or other property vandalized, drive-by shootings that damage property, maim, or kill residents, being assaulted, robbed, burglarized, stabbed, harassed, threatened, losing one's sense of security and a corresponding increase in fear. Indirect victimization is manifest by a decrease in neighborhood property values, a decline in the quality of city services, and losses to the neighborhood's business community.

From reducing property values and vandalizing cars in the neighborhood to assaulting residents who dare to express their displeasure to a gang member, few, if any, of the residents of a gang-infested neighborhood can escape the negative consequences of a gang's presence.

The Impact of Gangs on Fellow- and Rival Gang Members

bulletThe life of a gang member is often painful and brief. By an early age, gang members are often injured, incarcerated, or killed

Field Note: I was told repeatedly that the average age at which a gang member is either permanently disabled, jailed, or killed is only 20 in Los Angeles and 18 1/2 in St. Louis. These figures were given to me by several different sources in each of those cities. They suggest an ominous prospect for gang members.

bulletGang members are stigmatized by the community, labeled by the police, and are likely to build a record of arrests. Some of the arrests will lead to convictions and serving time in jail or prison. 

bulletA record of arrests and incarceration will make it more difficult for the gang member to ever find legitimate employment and, without legitimate employment, it is likely no lasting personal success may ever be achieved. 

bulletWithout exception, every older gang member I interviewed was sorry he or she ever got involved in a gang.

The Impact of Gangs on Neighborhoods and Communities

bulletDue to the presence of gangs, residential structures begin to deteriorate as homeowners flee the area and homes become rental properties or are sold to less-than-desirable homeowners. Absentee landlords find it either difficult or unnecessary to keep properties in good order. Structures are sometimes abandoned and become targets for gang- and other inappropriate activities. 

bulletThe business community is likely to suffer because customers and employees are afraid to walk to the store or park in its vicinity. The result is often the deterioration of the adjacent business community and its conversion to liquor stores, gambling establishments, tattoo shops, adult video stores, and other questionable ventures.

bulletSchools and students suffer due to the impact of gangs on school attendance and on order in the school. Students, teachers, and administrators fear being victimized either while walking, driving, or taking the bus to school or while in the school. The negative influence of gangs on gang member- and non-gang member school attendance contributes to school absenteeism and dropping out.

bulletGangs contribute to an increase in violence in neighborhoods from subtle forms of intimidation to outright murder and everything inbetween.

In essence, the infrastructure of the neighborhood is destroyed along with the spirit of many of its residents. Evidence of this may be seen in the inner cities and outlying neighborhoods of the United States and several other countries.

What Gangs Do

Field Note: When asked which gangs pose the greatest threat to the police and the community the gang unit supervisor said "All of them! A gang in itself is violent. The whole purpose is violence. They use fear to get what they want."

As we have seen earlier in this book, the activities in which gangs and their members are involved include:

bulletthe commission of crimes of all sorts including, but not limited to, murder, rape, robbery, assault, theft, burglary, arson, auto theft, firearms violations, drug law violations, extortion, home invasion, the pirating of CDs, vandalism and nearly every other crime in the book. Gang homicide is now a leading cause of death among younger age groups. (Miller, 2001, site)

"Gang members account for the lion's share of delinquent acts, especially the more serious delinquent acts.  While representing only one-third of the respondents [in the study conducted], gang members account for 86 percent of the serious delinquent acts, 69 percent of the violent delinquent acts, and 70 percent of the drug sales." (Thornberry and Burch, in "Summary and Conclusions," 1997)


the recruitment of new gang members and their socialization into the world of gangs.


protection and expansion of their turf or crime markets by whatever means necessary.


intimidation of local residents, area businesses, and rival gang members.


threatening the stability of the community in which they reside by challenging law enforcement authorities as well as any other authority which attempts to limit their activities.

I recently invited a seasoned, big-city gang member to one of my classes so the students and I could interview him. He talked about his criminal activity using the word work. "I got up around seven every morning," he said, "and got to work by nine. I'd clean out a few drawers (in convenience store cash registers) and be home by two for a little rest." This, of course, is not the kind of work we want people doing.

Gangs Present a Different Set of Issues 
than do Non-Gang Delinquents

For nearly the first year of my research I was convinced there was no need to distinguish between gang members and non-gang member offenders. Then I woke up.

bulletNon-gang delinquents and criminals do not recruit others to commit crimes with them. Gangs recruit. They seek out and encourage other youth to participate in criminal activity.

bulletNon-gang delinquents and criminals do not encourage others to use violence. Gangs encourage their members to commit acts of violence - against rival gang members and others. They provide access to weapons and sometimes give them as gifts to new members who have joined the gang.

bulletNon-gang delinquents and criminals can not protect themselves by counting on alibis provided by associates as easily as can gang members. Gang members defend one another against authority figures in an effort to escape detection, arrest, prosecution, and conviction.

Having learned these things, I now speak with community groups about the need "to see R.E.D." if they think or know their community has a gang presence. The "R" stands for the recruiting activity of gang members. The "E" symbolizes the violence that is encouraged, and the "D" signifies the way in which gang members defend themselves against authorities.  

bulletIn addition, gangs make the treatment of gang members in treatment programs less effective through peer pressure. Often, what little success a community-based agency may have with a gang member is undone when the client returns to the environment in which his or her gang resides.

bulletEven the most loosely structured gang is a form of organized crime and, if not deterred, may become more organized. As organization increases so does the potential for harm to the neighborhood and its residents.   

bullet Gangs often seek to increase the number of members they have as a means of furthering their criminal enterprises and protecting them. Gangs recruit in a variety of ways including the use of passive or active intimidation. Passive intimidation may result from simply having to walk through a known gang neighborhood. Fear of potential confrontations sometimes results in joining the gang. Active intimidation involves purposeful acts by one or more gang members meant to strike fear into a non-gang member. Joining the gang is a way of stopping that form of intimidation.  

bulletWhen it comes to gangs, the saying "the sum is greater that the total of its parts" takes on special significance. A gang is something in addition to the members who belong to it. Some gangs have a tradition or history of their own, rules and policies, an image of themselves in addition to the image individual members may have of themselves. Due to the loyalty some gang members feel towards their "homies" and the gang, this "sum of the parts" makes dealing with gangs more difficult than trying to deal with non-gang delinquents or criminals.  

bulletGangs are a negative socializing agent in a neighborhood. They teach deviance and delinquency. That's very different from what non-gang delinquents or solitary criminals do. Typically they are clandestine in their activities and avoid detection. Gang members, on the other hand, are often proud to claim their gang affiliation and wear visible identifiers of their association with a gang.

In Closing 

Gangs have a negative impact on non-gang community residents, gang members, and the social institutions which make community life possible and enjoyable. They represent a significant threat to the well-being of everyone in the communities in which they are found and should be of concern to everyone. Above all, parents should be concerned. They are our next topic of discussion.


Additional Resources: Visit the website of the Task Force on Gangs and Youth Violence to learn about gangs and youth violence and other gang-related subjects. is a site which provides up-to-the minute reporting on gang-related news in Los Angeles at "Headlines and News." Robert Walker's Gangs OR Us Web site provides up-to-date news on gangs throughout the country.

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.