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


Where Youth Violence and Environment Intersect

by Cande Iveson, Citizen's For Missouri's Children, No Safe Place, Kids Count Report on Children and Violence, April, 1995. Reprinted here with permission.

National and state data reveal areas in which high crime and other social problems overlap. For example, statistics indicate that persons with low incomes are at a higher risk of becoming crime victims. The KIDS COUNT in Missouri 1994 Report reveals an overlap between those counties with the highest juvenile crime rates and those with high rates of poverty. Gang activity, substance abuse, increased access to guns, and inadequate and unsafe schools also appear to be more prevalent in areas with high criminal activity.



"I never had enough money to buy a school lunch ... We couldn't afford winter shoes. I was cold a lot ..." (Adolescent in residential treatment for criminal behavior.)

While criminal activity has been increasing among juveniles and adults alike, poverty is also at an all time high. Recent data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (1993) illustrate that the gap between the poor and the wealthy is at its widest point in 25 years. In 1993, 39.3 million people were considered poor; 39.7 million had no health insurance. A recent report by the Children s Defense Fund warned that if present trends continue, 17 million American children will be living in poverty by the year 2001. Though poverty is not by itself a predictor of community violence, data suggest that high-poverty areas frequently have unusually high levels of youth violence. Analysis of 1994 KIDS COUNT in Missouri data indicates that Mississippi and Pemiscot counties and St. Louis City have some of the highest levels of both poverty and youth crime.

Elijah Anderson, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, believes that poor youngsters turn to violence as a remedy for powerlessness. Criminal activity often flourishes in environments that offer few resources or alternative activities for youth. When few job opportunities or role models exist, criminal activities can provide excitement, status, and financial gain.


"As I was leaving my house with two other friends I was shot in the back. I thought it was never going to happen to me." (15 year old girl)

According to a Citizens Guide to Street Gangs distributed by the St. Louis County Police, 90% of all male gang members have been arrested by age 18. Ninety-five percent will not finish high school, and 60% are dead or in prison by age 20. The movement of gang activity into a town or neighborhood is often followed by an increase in violent crime.

What is the reward gang behavior brings to juveniles? In the absence of academic and career opportunities, gang membership can provide an identity and a purpose. Gangs also offer protection, camaraderie, and excitement to young people. According to the St. Louis County Police, "Gangs are ego support systems; they are viewed by kids as launch pads to becoming big shots."

bulletEstimates suggest that almost 5,000 gangs exist nationally providing memberships to a quarter of a million people. In some cities, especially those reporting recent gang problems, 90% of gang members are juveniles (Howell, 1994).

bulletThe average gang member is 17 years old, but their ages can vary between 12-25 years of age (Howell, 1994).

bulletGangs are a growing problem throughout Missouri, including rural communities (Ozarks Fighting Back, 1993).

bulletThe St. Louis area alone has more than 120 gangs.

Media Violence

Gang activity accounts for only part of youth crime, however, and it is certainly not the only peer influence that encourages violence. Mass media television, radio, publications, and films glorify violence. In the U.S., children watch an average of 28 hours of T.V. weekly. Five violent acts per hour are observable in prime-time programming. Twenty five violent acts per hour are observable in cartoons (Johnston, 1993). While it is true that television violence and aggressive behavior correlate (Center for Media and Values, 1993), one can also argue that T.V., music, gangsta rap, and movie content all mirror the society in which they are created. Artists say that they produce what others are willing to buy. Unfortunately, violence sells well.

Substance Abuse

"My neighborhood is bad, they take drugs and shoot. Last week this man got shot. And got threw under a car and that man got pick up and was put in a bag. My hobby is skating and jump rope." (Elementary school child)

Drug and alcohol abuse can also lead to increased youth violence. When students from 32,000 middle and high schools across the country were evaluated, those using drugs were "more than twice as likely to get into physical fights, three times more likely to be truant from school, and four times more likely to commit vandalism" (Safe 2000 Community Partnership, 1994). Drugs and alcohol contribute to an unsafe environment for juveniles and increased violence among juveniles.


"My friend had been killed three days before . . . I thought I better carry my gun to protect myself." (Pre-teen youth)

It is illegal for juveniles to purchase firearms. However, many children have access to firearms, and they carry and use these weapons regularly. Many children and families express fears regarding the increased violence in schools and communities. This fear of violence itself increases rates of gun ownership, as youths and adults seek to defend their own safety.

Unfortunately, an increased number of guns often leads to unintentional shootings as well as criminal violence. Nowhere is injury and death by gunfire more observable than in our nation's population of young people.

bulletGuns were used to kill 222 American children under the age of ten, and 6,795 young people under the age of 25 in 1990 (Children s Defense Fund, 1993).

bullet3000 children in the United States under the age of 20 die each year as a result of unintentional gunshot wounds (Coalition for America s Children, 1994).

bulletAccording to the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence (1993), 48% of all African-American teenage males who died in 1988 were killed by guns.

bulletYouth murders that involved guns increased 125% between 1984 and 1990 (Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, 1993).

Inadequate and Unsafe Schools

"We've grown accustomed to violence in the community, but people expect kids to be safe in school." (Tony Coleman St. Louis County Police Officer)

Children living in high-poverty areas frequently attend schools that are under-funded and ill-equipped to meet their educational and social needs. Increasingly, schools are asked to meet a variety of demands in these communities when often they can barely provide the basics of education. As a result, many young people leave school before graduation because they see no connection between academic effort and future success. Citizens for Missouri s Children has found a strong relationship between rates of poverty and low high school completion rates in Missouri counties.

"The problems of the streets in urban areas, as teachers often note, frequently spill over into public schools" (Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities)

As if underfunded and ill-equipped facilities were not enough of an obstacle to learning, kids today are experiencing more and more violence in their schools. No school, regardless of its location or its relative wealth, is immune to this problem.

bulletSchool violence has increased significantly over the past five years in nearly 40% of America s cities and towns, according to a 1994 survey of 700 cities by the National League of Cities.

bulletLarge cities claimed that 72% of their school violence was attributable in part to gang activity.

bulletIn 1990, one out of 25 high school students carried a gun (Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, 1993).

bullet71 students and teachers nationwide were killed with guns in their schools beween the years 1985/86 and 1989/90 (Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, 1993).

bullet135,000 guns are brought to school each day (Coalition for America s Children, 1994).

Many schools are taking an active role in reducing violence within their buildings and playgrounds and, ultimately, in their communities. Conflict resolution and peer mediation are included in the curriculum in a number of school districts. Schools have the advantage of being both a place in which skills can be taught and a controlled environment in which those skills can be practiced. Another approach to violence reduction in schools is the "fight-free" school concept. High expectations, school pride, and recognition of success motivate students to refrain from fighting. By giving visible and vocal messages that fighting is not acceptable and by praising students success in achieving fight-free school days, the social norm is shaped so that fighting is not socially acceptable behavior.

Although these skills are most often taught in middle and high schools, there is a growing recognition that teaching violence prevention to very young children is of critical importance. The Nursery Foundation, a child care provider in St. Louis that has been an anchor for the neighborhood since its founding in 1947, has been in the vanguard of teaching children to change the attitudes and behaviors which contribute to violence. Children ages 3-6 are taught empathy (how to identify and predict the feelings of others), skills in problem solving and resolving conflict without fighting, and ways to reduce their stress and channel angry feelings in positive ways. The Nursery Foundation utilizes the "Second Step Violence Prevention Curriculum" in their work with children.

Issues of crime and violence as they relate to juveniles are extremely complex. Many factors correlate with high crime rates, including poverty, negative peer culture, drug and alcohol abuse, ready access to guns, and poor educational opportunity. Successful prevention must take these complexities into account.

OSEDA Home Page | Office of Social and Economic Data Analysis
Citizens for Missouri's Children
Revised June 14, 1995

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