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

Part 12a:
Crimes Gang Members Commit

According to a recent longitudinal, multi-city study conducted on behalf of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, "...being a member of a gang increases the rate of involvement in a variety of deviant behaviors over and above the impact of having delinquent peers." (Gang Membership, Delinquent Peers, and Delinquent Behavior, 1998, page)

Field Note: I asked a federal prison warden what he thought about the gang situation in the United States. He said "Look at our president [Clinton]. Here's the leader of our country, he's morally bankrupt and he's still in office! Why? Because the economy has been strong while he's served as president. What does that tell you about us as a people? Material wealth is more important than values and morals.   

"Apparently, when faced with a choice between inappropriate sexual relations with a student intern and material gains, material concerns outweigh moral concerns. That's what it communicates ... to everyone - children, adults ... everyone. I think that's an expression or sign of where we are as a culture and it's sad. What's wrong with a ghetto child selling drugs to make money if the president can get away with what he did?!"

Gang members commit crimes against members of their own gang, members of rival gangs, and against non-gang members. Depending upon the nature of the gang and the individual members in it, the crimes they commit vary. Drug-oriented gangs commit drug-related crimes. But not all gangs are involved in drugs. They may specialize in the theft of cars or theft from cars, shoplifting, or have no specialty and commit a variety of crimes. According to Egley's (1999) survey of over 3,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, "Offense types reported to be most prevalent among gang members are larceny/theft, aggravated assault, and burglary/breaking and entering." (Egley, 1999, page)

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bulletGangs and Drug-Related Crimes
bulletGangs and Homicide
bulletInvolvement in Other Crimes

Gangs and Drug-Related Crimes

Potential gang members and the general public seem to think there is a great deal of money to be made by gang members who sell illegal drugs on the streets of American cities. Levitt and Venkatsesh (1998) , economists and social researchers, recently reported that few of the members of the inner-city African-American gang they studied made more than minimum wage selling illegal drugs. 

They found that, contrary to public perceptions, few gang members pocket lots of money. Indeed, says Levitt, the gang members could not make a living off their profits from drug sales alone.

Over a four-year period in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a former gang member, who now works in the legitimate business sector, kept careful records of his gang's profits, passing the information to Venkatesh on loose-leaf sheets copied from the gang ledger. Levitt then created an economic model based on the gang's general expenses and its revenue from drug dealing and membership dues. For safety reasons, Levitt and Venkatesh chose to keep confidential their sources and the now-defunct gang's whereabouts and members.

The focus gang had a leader, three officers, about 75 foot soldiers, and some 200 rank-and-file individuals. The gang leader pocketed a documented average of $100,000 a year. Officers, who managed gang funds and drug operations, received an average of $1,000 a month, says Levitt, while the foot soldiers, the equivalent of part-time workers, earned no more than minimum wage selling drugs on the streets. Rank-and-file individuals, the freelancers of the drug world, did sporadic drug dealing for the gang. (University of Chicago Magazine, 1998)

Field Note: A seasoned gang member and drug dealer told me "There are only a few gang members who realize that there is money enough for everyone. Those who recognize this go about their work of sellin' drugs in a more laid-back way. The gang members who do not see this are more anxious, pushier, they rush up on potential customers."

While he didn't see any accumulation of wealth within gangs he did suggest that "Two gang members might pool their money, ones who really trust one another. But they have to be wary of fellow gang members and of rivals in these situations."  

For gang members selling drugs on the street he said "They probably turn down more deals than they make ... there are so many undercover cops out there trying to buy drugs. In a good day a single seller may net six hundred to two thousand dollars [the sale of one or two ounces of crack cocaine]. For a real hustler, he might make two thousand in an hour. How much someone makes depends on the neighborhood and the buyers."

Referring to the sale of drugs on the street be said "It's a business, like any other business." When asked who might supply the drugs, he said "The supplier might be a member of the gang with his own connections or someone from outside the gang."

When asked "Why not have a legitimate job so you don't have to worry about police and being arrested and all of that?" he said "You mean an eight hour day? Pay taxes? I can't earn enough that way. Now, some gang members start out that way, but then they have to add to that in order to have enough money, see that they can make much more sellin' on the street, and they leave the job.

"Besides, if you know your rights and you know how to read the police, you don't have to worry too much about bein' arrested or convicted of anything. Like when they come rollin' up on you. Sit still, don't run. The police will know you have some warrants if you run."

As Table 34 (below) indicates, only 25-38% of the gangs studied in 1998 were drug gangs. (National Youth Gang Survey, 1998, page  The very next year, Egley "estimated that 46 percent of youth gang members are involved in street drug sales to generate profits for the gang." (Egley, 1999, page That's a significant number, but still less than half of all gang-related criminal activity.

Table 34 also shows that, in 1998, drug gangs were more prominent in rural counties (38%) than in large cities (35%). Although some studies suggest somewhat different percentages, all note the spread of drug gangs across cities and counties of all sizes.

Field Note:  I asked a juvenile officer about drugs, guns, and the gangs. She said she has "...seen more weapons coming into the schools. The little brothers and sisters of adult gang members are being sucked in. They're told to pass out joints [marijuana cigarettes] to other kids in the school for free and, in return, the older gang members tell them 'If you'll do that for me I'll give you some toys.' And you know how kids feel about toys! And they ask them to steal a gun, like they recently did from a showcase in a pawn shop, and give them a gift for it." The purpose of giving away the marijuana is to build demand for the drug among the students at the school.

A gang member I interviewed observed that in Oklahoma City and Chicago "What was once a focus on territory has turned into making money selling drugs. That's why there's been a decline in drive-by-shootings, killings, assaults and general gang mischief."  

He told me there are few turf battles in those cities because of the plentiful supply of drugs and the large demand for them. There is no reason for conflict over drug sales. "There's enough for everyone," he said, "so what's to fight about? Besides, you fight, you get hurt, you can't sell drugs, you're not making money! On a good day I can make between two hundred and five hundred dollars. A really good dealer can make from two thousand to four thousand a day, easily. I rode with a dealer one morning and in just three hours he had made eleven hundred dollars in sales for drugs that cost him around three hundred."

The early to mid-1980's saw rapid growth in the use of cocaine as crack became the drug of choice in the inner cities. (Fagan, 1996; Fagan and Chin, 1990; Klein and Maxson, 1994). Research conducted in the 1980's and 1990's has documented extensive youth and adult gang member involvement in drug use and generally higher levels of use compared with nongang members. (Chin, 1990; Chin and Fagan, 1990; Fagan, 1989).

Some cities, such as Detroit (Taylor, 1993) and San Francisco (Lauderback, Hansen and Waldorf, 1992), found an increasing number of females involved in gang drug trafficking and violent crime, but the consensus is that female involvement in these behaviors has not increased commensurately with the increase among males (Chesney-Lind, 1993; Maxson, 1995; Moore and Hagedorn, 1996). (Howell and Decker, 1999, page)

Field Note: While observing a probation and parole officer during her office visit hours I met one of her probationers, Karen. Karen was the girlfriend of a gangster called Fish. 

Karen has only recently kicked her methamphetamine addiction, one she shared with her father. Her probation officer told me Karen and her father "used to do drugs together. They once went on a twenty day binge abusing the drug."

Karen is a beautiful young woman, and her baby girl could be a poster child. Both are dressed in clean and bright clothes, they're groomed well and are very polite. Recently, Karen was awarded a "Success Certificate" for her positive achievements while on probation. She has a new boyfriend and is happy, as is her probation officer, that he is a positive influence in her life.

Karen is paying restitution to the victims of her crime - stealing blank checks, forging them and cashing them at area banks. The proceeds were used to support her drug addiction. She drove through a bank drive-thru to cash one of the checks and, because the transaction was caught on film, she was found and arrested.

Gang members who get involved in drugs may be initiated into their involvement in several different ways. Sometimes it's not a matter of choice, or the choice is a rather narrow one, as in the following case.

Field Note: I asked a gang member named Maurice how he got started on drugs and he told me "My uncles and I would always sit on the porch of the house and, while they were smoking marijuana, they would blow it in my face sometimes. It was just what they did. It was just normal." I asked him to tell me a little about his uncles and he said "You mean my fathers. I had five of them. I call them my uncles." Later in the conversation he said "I was fatherless."

I had been told, and had seen, that drugs are sometimes sold around the neighborhood park, so I asked Maurice about this. "Is the park a center for drug sales?" "Well, drug sales could be made in cars, in houses, on the streets, yeh, in the park," he said. "They happen everywhere. I don't know if there's a center or central place where they happen. It's like mercury. The police bust some people here, it goes somewhere else. It just moves around."

In their study of the police response to gangs, Katz and Webb found two explanations for why there may have been an increase in gang involvement in drug sales in the 1980s - a period which may be characterized as the crack decade.

First, in the early 1980s, crack cocaine use escalated dramatically, and a new drug market emerged. Because the new market had not yet stabilized, violence was often used as a regulatory mechanism. Second, at about the same time, the economic infrastructure of many inner cities collapsed. Manufacturing jobs declined, and service and technology jobs, which began to drive the new economy, were being created in suburban communities. The economic restructuring of the nation left unqualified and geographically isolated urban minority youth without the means or opportunity for employment. The new crack cocaine market provided opportunities for inner-city youth to make money. (Katz and Webb, 2004, p. 10)

Among the drug-related crimes gang members commit are the cultivation (i.e., marijuana) and manufacture (i.e., methamphetamine, crack cocaine) of illegal drugs as well as trafficking (distribution), sales, and possession. Some gangs or gang members are also involved in the theft of manufactured drugs (i.e., amphetamines, barbiturates, ecstasy) for the purpose of selling them for a profit or for their own consumption.

No conversation about drugs and youth would be complete without giving at least some attention to the matter of substance abuse and addiction, whether it is gang related or not. As reported by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University:

Drug and alcohol abuse is implicated in all types of juvenile crime, including almost 70% of violent offenses, 72% of property offenses, and more than 80% of other offenses, such as vandalism and disorderly conduct.

The problem is, virtually nothing is being done to stem this disturbing tide. CASA found that some 1,900,000 of the 2,400,000 juvenile arrestees are drug and alcohol abusers or addicts. Yet, only 68,600 of them-a mere 3.6%-receive any treatment. Moreover, substance abuse is not the sole problem that goes unaddressed in these kids' lives. Many come from broken and troubled families, have been abused or neglected, live in crime-infested neighborhoods, and struggle with learning disabilities and mental health problems such as depression and schizophrenia.

Alcohol and drug abuse and addiction go untreated. While 44% of the 10- to 17-yearolds arrested in the past year already meet the clinical definition of substance abuse or dependence (while 28% meet the clinical test of hard-core addiction), less than four percent receive treatment. These arrested juveniles are six times more likely to be substance abusers and eight times more likely to be hooked on drugs and alcohol than their contemporaries. (The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 2005, page)

Whether a youth's abuse of or addiction to drugs was caused by gang membership or led to gang membership is less important than educating youths about the potential dangers of certain drugs and providing substance abuse intervention programs whenever possible. Beyond drugs, there are other crimes youths commit and that gang members commit. That's our next topic.

(Crimes Gang Members Commit, Continued)

2002 Michael K. Carlie
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