Frequently Asked Questions About Gangs

  1. What is a gang?

  2. How are street gangs different from other criminal groups, such as organized crime groups, motorcycle gangs, ideology groups, and prison gangs?

  3. Is the gang problem changing?

  4. How extensive is the current gang problem?

  5. How are gang crimes, especially gang-related homicides, changing nationally?

  6. What is the relationship between gang involvement and other serious and violent crime?

  7. What kinds of gangs are there?

  8. How extensive is the gang-drug-violence connection?

  9. What is the nature of gang member migration across the United States?

  10. What proportion of adolescents join gangs and how long do they stay in?

  11. What is the racial/ethnic composition of gangs?

  12. Is female gang involvement increasing?

  13. How do youth become involved in gangs?

  14. What are risk factors for gang membership?

  15. What are the short-term and long-term consequences of joining a gang?

  16. Why and how do youth leave a gang?

  17. What can be done about street and youth gangs?

Bibliography


1. What is a gang?

There is no single, generally accepted definition of a “gang.” State and local jurisdictions tend to develop their own definitions. The term “street gang” is often used interchangeably with “youth gang” as well as “criminal street gang,” with the latter explicitly denoting the element of criminal activity found almost universally in gang-related legislation. However, the term “street gang” carries two specific meanings that increase its practical value. First, it suggests a common feature of gangs: They commonly have a street presence. Street socialization is a key feature of adolescent gangs. Second, this term also refers to “street crimes,” that is, serious and violent crimes (e.g., assaults, drive-by shootings, robberies, homicides) that occur on the streets and that often are of concern to citizens and policymakers. The ongoing commission of these offenses consequently instills fear among residents, undermining informal social control mechanisms within the community.

The following criteria are commonly used for classifying groups as gangs:

  • The group has three or more members, generally aged 12–24.
  • Members share an identity, typically linked to a name, and often other symbols.
  • Members view themselves as a gang, and they are recognized by others as a gang.
  • The group has some permanence and a degree of organization.
  • The group is involved in an elevated level of criminal activity.

Responses from law enforcement agencies in the National Youth Gang Survey (NYGS) indicate that among the characteristics of greatest importance in defining a gang are group identity and criminal activity, a group name, and accompanying signs and symbols that outwardly represent the group to others.

For more information, see:
http://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/Survey-Analysis/Defining-Gangs.
http://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/Legislation/.

2. How are street gangs different from other criminal groups, such as organized crime groups, motorcycle gangs, ideology groups, and prison gangs?

The gang characterization is sometimes broadly extended beyond the street and/or youth designation to include terrorist gang, prison gang, motorcycle gang, or criminal gang as in organized crime. As noted by gang researcher Malcolm Klein, “in each of these instances, the word ‘gang’ implies a level of structure and organization for criminal conspiracy that is simply beyond the capacity of most street gangs.” (2004:57) To remain in business, organized crime groups such as drug cartels must have strong leadership, codes of loyalty, severe sanctions for failure to abide by these codes, and a level of entrepreneurial expertise that enables them to accumulate and invest proceeds from drug sales. In contrast, “most street gangs are only loosely structured, with transient leadership and membership, easily transcended codes of loyalty, and informal rather than formal roles for the members.” Very few street or youth gangs meet the essential criteria for classification as “organized crime.” And while some street gangs may have ties to established prison gangs and/or have incarcerated members who remain connected to the gang, it is important not to equate street and prison gangs, since substantial differences exist between them. Some notable examples include the organized, collective drug trade, strong ties, and covert behavior among prison gangs, compared with less structured, more individualistic drug trade, highly fluctuating ties, and overt behavior among street gangs.

3. Is the gang problem changing?

It is well-known and inarguable that the gang problem has changed, as well as become more entrenched, over the past 25 years. Media reporting has a natural tendency to cover areas experiencing escalations in gang violence, sometimes directly or inadvertently creating the illusion that the upsurge is widespread and perpetual. A sudden increase in gang activity—in particular, violent gang activity—in a geographic area (e.g., neighborhood) does not in and of itself indicate that a citywide, regional, statewide, or national increase is imminent. At the most basic level, gang activity is localized in nature and tends to follow a cyclical pattern with upswings followed by downturns. Gang violence is best regarded as a cycle that stems from the ever-changing and volatile nature of conflict, rivalry, and competition among local gangs. For example, after a period of inactivity, a mobilizing event such as one gang encroaching on a rival gang’s territory will likely result in a violent event (e.g., a drive-by shooting), which may result in a retaliatory act, and so on. The localized nature of these types of cyclical patterns represents the primary explanation for gang crime and violence across the United States. At any given point in time, every gang-problem city (and gang-problem neighborhood within larger cities) is at its own point in the cycle of gang violence.

On a national scale, the gang problem has changed over the decades, as evidenced by the growing number of gangs and gang members, the availability and use of firearms, and the emergence of a persistent, long-standing gang presence (despite constant turnover in membership) in major cities across the United States. These trends represent reliable findings, which can be used to characterize the gang problem as a whole.

More recently, discovered involvement of one or a few gangs in criminal offenses that have been considered atypical of street gang criminal behavior is getting national attention. Recent examples include white-collar crimes, human trafficking, prostitution rings, infiltration of governmental and criminal justice agencies, usage of social networking sites and other Internet sites to coordinate criminal activity, and affiliation with domestic extremist groups. While it is important to recognize the emerging and evolving criminal activities of gangs, it is critical not to overgeneralize these as trends that are representative of most gangs in the United States. Without reliable and methodologically sound empirical evidence collected over time, it is careless to assume that the discovered involvement of one or a few gangs in a criminal activity is an emerging trend that applies to all gangs.

4. How extensive is the current gang problem?

In order to properly assess changes in the national gang problem over time, reliable indicators of the gang problem must be collected from a large and representative sample of law enforcement agencies across the United States. Between 1996 and 2012, the National Youth Gang Survey (NYGS) has provided the only national data source for assessing long-term and annual changes in the gang problem across the following areas: (1) the emergence, presence, and stability patterns of gang problems within jurisdictions over time (prevalence measures); and (2) the relative size of the problem across such indicators as the number of gangs, the number of gang members, and the number of gang-related homicides and other crimes (magnitude measures).

In terms of the prevalence measures, the latest estimate from the NYGS finds that gangs are present in approximately 30 percent of the jurisdictions across the United States. This figure represents a sizeable drop from the mid-1990s, when 40 percent of jurisdictions reported a gang presence. Following a steady decline throughout the late 1990s, the gang prevalence measure reached its lowest point in 2001, steadily increased in subsequent years, and has remained relatively stable in recent years. The least amount of change occurred in the largest cities and suburban counties, where gang activity remains most prevalent, while the greatest amount of change has occurred in rural counties and smaller cities—especially the latter, where the gang prevalence rate fell nearly 10 percentage points from 2010 to 2012. Further, gang activity in smaller cities and rural counties is more likely to be transitory and unstable in nature, such that gang activity may emerge and dissipate in just a few years’ time. The frequency of this transitory pattern suggests that the emergence of gang activity does not necessarily indicate a protracted presence over time.

While prevalence measures provide a straightforward and simplified assessment of the gang problem, a better measure pertains to the size, or magnitude, of the gang problem in terms of the number of gangs and gang members, as well as the number of gang crimes (discussed separately below). From the latest NYGS estimate provided by law enforcement agencies, there are approximately 30,000 gangs and 850,000 gang members across the United States. Compared with the previous five-year average, the estimated number of gangs has increased 8 percent and the estimated number of gang members 11 percent. Accounting for the largest share of these increases are larger cities—more than 50 percent of the net increase in gangs and gang members over the past five years was due to overall increases in larger cities.

The decline in gang prevalence rates across smaller cities and rural counties, coupled with increases in the number of gangs and gang members in densely populated areas (especially larger cities), suggests that the gang problem is becoming more concentrated nationally in urban areas. While local reports to the contrary are not uncommon, it must be remembered that these results are based on a nationally representative sample of all law enforcement agencies across the United States, which is the only appropriate method to assess nationwide changes in gang activity.

For more information, see:
http://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/Survey-Analysis/Prevalence-of-Gang-Problems.

5. How are gang crimes, especially gang-related homicides, changing nationally?

Simply put, assessing changes across a broad range of gang-related crimes is not possible on a national scale. This is because most law enforcement agencies neither regularly nor reliably record local offenses as “gang-related.” This lack of data extends from less serious offenses to major offenses such as aggravated assault, firearm use, and robbery. The sole exception to this practice pertains to homicides, where most agencies report tracking the number of gang-related homicides. Thus, at a national level, this is currently the only offense type for which data are available.

An additional concern is the varying methods by which homicides are classified as “gang-related.” The most commonly used is the “member-based” approach, in which a homicide is classified as gang-related if the victim was and/or the perpetrator is a gang member. Some agencies also utilize a more restrictive classification method called the “motive-based” approach, which involves substantiating that the crime furthers the interests of the entire gang. However, significantly fewer agencies use the motive-based approach, so the following discussion uses the more encompassing member-based approach. Finally, it is important to note that the term “gang homicide” often subsumes lethal outcomes involving such diverse sources, for example, as gang rivalries, drug market participation, solitary crimes involving individual gang members, or arguments between gang-involved acquaintances, such that there is characteristically no single gang homicide problem, but rather many gang homicide problems.

The most recent count in the 2012 NYGS finds that 2,363 homicides were determined to be gang-related nationally. In the preceding five years, the number of gang-related homicides ranged from approximately 1,700 to 2,100 per year, increasing over 20 percent to the most recent count. During this same time frame, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports estimates that around 15,000 homicides occurred annually in the United States. Taken together, these findings suggest that gangs were involved in approximately 15 percent of all homicides, underscoring the considerable overlap between gang activity and violent crime. Further, the occurrence of gang homicides was highly concentrated in very large cities, with a small subset of these cities accounting for most of the net increase over previous years.

While these results must be interpreted cautiously, being necessarily reliant on one measure of the totality of gang-related crime, they do indicate a diverging trend from the overall national homicide rate. As noted in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, the homicide (and violent crime) rate is currently at one of its lowest points in the past 25 years, with many (but not all) large cities experiencing their lowest homicide rates in nearly half a century. Despite this decrease, however, gang-related homicides across these same cities have either remained unchanged or, in some instances, increased such that the urban homicide problem has increasingly become a gang homicide problem.

For more information, see:
http://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/Survey-Analysis/Measuring-the-Extent-of-Gang-Problems#homicidesnumber.

6. What is the relationship between gang involvement and other serious and violent crime?

Because of the commonly known and widespread limitations of officially recorded data on gang crime (see FAQ number 5), other data sources, such as self-report studies, are typically used to explore this issue. Studies of large urban samples reveal that gang members are responsible for a large proportion of all violent offenses committed during the adolescent years. Across separate large-scale studies (both longitudinal and representative) in three large cities, gang members made up between 15 and 30 percent of the sample but accounted for 65 to 85 percent of the violent offenses recorded. These findings demonstrate the disproportionate contribution gang members make to the overall crime rate.

Gang membership is a strong predictor of individual violence in adolescence and generally has been observed to be an even more powerful predictor than two of the most highly regarded factors (i.e., delinquent peer association and prior violence). Survey research has consistently demonstrated that individuals are significantly more criminally active during periods of active gang membership—compared with before joining the gang and after leaving the gang—particularly in serious and violent offenses. Further, prolonged periods of gang involvement and/or greater embeddedness in the gang is associated with higher levels of criminal involvement.

7. What kinds of gangs are there?

There is no agreed-upon gang typology. Numerous attempts at classifying the various types of gangs have been made. Two common features of these attempts are: (1) classifying gangs by the type of criminal activity they are involved in; and (2) classifying gangs based on their names and whether they are derived from national gang names or localized, neighborhood gang names. Both of these methods are subject to a critical flaw frequently observed regarding street gangs. In terms of the first type of classification, by and large, gangs as a group are involved in a variety of criminal activities. During active periods of membership, the offending rate of youth and young adults involved in gangs increases for a multitude and wide range of offenses. The phenomenon is referred to as “cafeteria-style offending,” serving as a reminder that reducing gang types to one offense or another is substantially misleading. The method of classifying gangs by their names is also inherently flawed, since many gangs with national-sounding names have little if any connection to the larger, long-standing gangs from which their names are derived. In many instances, the connection between local and national gangs based on the similarity in names is merely assumed rather than conclusively demonstrated and documented. Local gang members state that they typically adopt larger gang names to project a more widespread and powerful presence in their area. Gangs frequently adopt a mixture of cultural signs and symbols based on their appeal to local gang members, resulting in what has been referred to as a “hybrid gang” culture.

The types of gangs that often receive the most attention from media are characterized as gangs with nationally recognized names, portrayed as highly organized, extremely violent, and focused on one criminal operation, such as drug trafficking. The public is often left with the impression that all gangs, and their gang members, are excessively violent and out of control. These characterizations do more than enough to promote fear and little to help develop successful responses to the gang problem in any given community. In reality, there are a variety of gangs across the United States. Understanding how gangs and their members are both different and similar is essential in developing and implementing appropriate prevention and intervention programs, as well as targeted control strategies.

8. How extensive is the gang-drug-violence connection?

A common assertion regarding all gangs is their involvement in drug trafficking, distribution, and/or sales. However, while the overlap of gangs and drugs is well-documented, the proportion of gangs that are centered around drug distribution and that effectively control the operations thereof is relatively small. To be sure, gang members are significantly more likely to be involved in drug sales, but numerous research projects have revealed that these members rarely reinvest drug-sale profits into the gang as a whole; rather, they typically keep the profits for themselves. This finding, replicated over time and place, suggests a more nuanced description of the gang-drug connection, such that gangs provide an entrance into drug sales, primarily in street-level distribution, which when viewed superficially perpetuates the assertion that gangs control the distribution of drugs.

A related topic is the gang-drug-violence connection. Incidents involving gangs and drugs, resulting in the use of violence, attract greater coverage by the media, thus reinforcing this connection to the public. Gang violence, however, entails both expressive crimes and instrumental crimes. Expressive crimes pertain to incidents arising from ongoing conflicts and rivalries between gangs (e.g., disrespect, symbolic dominance), while instrumental crimes pertain to incidents surrounding economic functions (e.g., drug sales). While it is difficult to determine with precision the proportion of gang violence related to each, it has been demonstrated convincingly that instrumental-type incidents are much rarer than widely believed. In multiple studies over the past 25 years, a repeated finding is the lack of a drug component surrounding gang-related homicides. That is, in a large majority of these cases, the motives for the events pertained to the expressive and not the instrumental nature of gang violence. Thus, similar to drug sales, while the connection between gangs and violence is well-known, it is important to remain aware of the form this violence typically takes and not overgeneralize based on a few incidents, which can jeopardize the development of effective responses to local gang activity.

9. What is the nature of gang member migration across the United States?

An often-repeated assertion is that gangs migrate to areas previously unaffected by gang activity to expand their drug operations (sometimes called “franchising”). As discussed in FAQ number 8, though, the overlap of the gang-drug connection is often overdrawn. Thus, it is necessary to thoroughly examine the extent of gang member migration, as well as the reasons behind the movement of gang members to other jurisdictions. Building on the work of research conducted in the 1990s, the NYGS recently examined the topic of gang member migration from the perspective of a nationally representative sample of law enforcement agencies across the United States.

The results from this analysis indicate that gang member migration is notably dynamic and not accurately portrayed through reliance on singular accounts of migration for franchising purposes. (See also NGC Newsletters Summer 2012 and Winter 2013). First, the largest proportion of agencies that reported the migration of gang members into their jurisdictions were agencies already experiencing an established gang problem and agencies located in primarily urban areas. That is, outside metropolitan areas, gang member migration was infrequently reported, and when it did occur it typically followed an already established local gang problem. Second, the relative size of gang member migrants as a proportion of the total number of gang members was characteristically small. A clear majority of nonmetropolitan agencies indicated that gang member migrants made up a relatively small percentage (less than 25 percent) of gang members in their jurisdictions. Conversely, very few agencies stated that gang member migrants made up more than half of their documented gang members. Third, the reasons behind the movement of gang members according to law enforcement respondents were not as criminally motivated as is widely believed. In fact, the migration of gang members for social (legitimate) reasons such as moving for employment and/or educational opportunities far outweighed illegitimate reasons (e.g., drug distribution, other illegal activities, recruitment) as the motivating factors behind gang member migration.

Thus, based on a representative sample of law enforcement agencies, these findings indicate that gang member migration is not widespread, is least likely to occur in jurisdictions outside metropolitan areas, usually occurs after a local gang problem has emerged, and is most closely associated with legitimate social reasons that underscore the larger population movement—jobs and education.

For more information, see:
http://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/Survey-Analysis/Gang-Member-Migration.
PDF filehttp://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/Content/Newsletters/NGC-Newsletter-2012-Summer.pdf.
PDF filehttp://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/Content/Newsletters/NGC-Newsletter-2013-Winter.pdf.

10. What proportion of adolescents join gangs and how long do they stay in?

Because of inherent limitations in law enforcement data and ethnographic studies, determining the proportion of adolescents and young adults who join street gangs is best accomplished through self-report studies of a specified target population. Based on a national study properly weighted to be representative of all youth, recent research finds that approximately 8 percent of all youth have joined a gang by their twenties. This estimate is also highly dynamic. In a multisite study in cities with known and significant gang problems, the percentage of youth who joined a gang peaked in the early teens and declined precipitously thereafter. These estimates, of course, vary across localities and are highly contingent on the type of gang problem observed in a given community. Studies conducted in some urban cities with long-standing gang problems have found that 15 percent or more of youth joined a gang at some point during their adolescent and youth-adult years.

A common misconception surrounding gangs is that once a person joins, he or she stays in the gang for an extended period of years. By following subjects over time, longitudinal research studies provide the only reliable method to determine the duration in which a person remains in a gang. Based on multiple studies, in multiple cities, across multiple research projects, it is repeatedly found that most youth who join a gang do not remain in it for an extended period of time. For the majority of youth who join a gang, the average amount of time they remain active in the gang is one to two years, and fewer than 1 in 10 gang members report involvement for four or more years. However, the more embedded a person is in a gang—e.g., the more his or her self-identity is derived from the gang—the longer that person will remain in the gang, which negatively impacts efforts at severing gang ties.

In sum, joining a gang is not a rare event, relatively speaking. However, a corollary finding also emerges from these systematic studies: Even in the most gang-ridden areas across the United States, most youth do not join a gang. Comparatively, law enforcement agencies report older, more adult-aged gang members in the NYGS (in 2011, approximately two-thirds were 18 and over), reflecting the tendency of agencies to focus primarily on the more embedded (hard-core) members of gangs. This is especially the case in urban areas with long-standing gang problems, where adult-aged members make up a clear majority; in newer gang-problem areas outside the larger cities, this proportion is noticeably smaller.

For more information, see:
http://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/Survey-Analysis/Demographics.

11. What is the racial/ethnic composition of gangs?

As has been observed and written about extensively, the racial/ethnic composition of a community’s gang problem is largely a reflection of the racial/ethnic composition of the community itself, once socioeconomic factors are taken into account. Gangs tend to emerge in the most disadvantaged areas and thus naturally attract the disadvantaged youth residing in those areas. Therefore, a discussion of the racial/ethnic composition of gangs is largely a discussion of the socioeconomic variables of that area.

Reflecting the racial/ethnic divide along socioeconomic lines across the country, the largest percentage of gang members in the NYGS belong to minorities, with around half reported as Hispanic/Latino and approximately one-third as African American/black. Around 10 to 15 percent of gang members are reported as white/Caucasian. A multisite study of school-aged youth finds comparable proportions. In contrast, a national survey of youth reports a much lower percentage of blacks (25 percent) and Hispanics (19 percent). Clearly, there is much variation across cities, counties, and states in the racial/ethnic composition of gangs, but ultimately, this descriptive characteristic of the gang problem is best regarded as a reflection of the social and economic inequalities that persist across the United States.

For more information, see:
http://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/Survey-Analysis/Demographics.

12. Is female gang involvement increasing?

Recent discussions of the national gang problem frequently allude to an increase in female gang membership across the country. The fact remains, however, that females have been observed, documented, and studied as gang members for decades. That is, females joining gangs is not a new development. What seems to change over time is the amount of attention they receive.

Despite recent law enforcement reports asserting an increase in female gang members, law enforcement data in the NYGS finds that the percentage of gang members who are female has remained unchanged over the past 15 years. From the late 1990s through the early 2010s, law enforcement agencies reported that the national total of female gang members ranged from 6.1 to 7.7 percent. That is, more than 90 percent of the gang members documented in a national study of law enforcement are male.

Other research strategies, however, provide a very different assessment of female gang membership. In a nationally representative survey of youth, nearly 30 percent of the gang members were found to be female. In another multisite study in known gang cities, nearly 40 percent of the gang members were female. Other studies find very comparable results. In general, the less a study relies on law enforcement-centric data, the greater the percentage of gang members who are observed to be female. Thus, an emerging trend—an increase in female gang membership asserted by law enforcement agencies—may be an artifact of these agencies’ paying closer attention to this part of the gang problem.

One compelling explanation for the discrepancy between law enforcement data and all other research methodologies is the observed pattern of gang involvement for females. In general, not only do males join gangs at a higher rate than females, they also stay in the gangs longer. This finding has been observed across multiple longitudinal studies. In one multisite study, the percentage of male and female gang members was roughly equal in the early teens, but diverged substantially over time as females made up an increasingly smaller proportion. This divergence may also be due, in part, to the findings of one study that males continue to join gangs throughout adolescence, while onset peaks in the early teens for females.

For more information, see:
http://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/Survey-Analysis/Demographics.

13. How do youth become involved in gangs?

Based on a multitude of studies, scholars note that youth may be “pulled” and/or “pushed” into gang membership. Pulls are features that attract youth, such as the perception of increased reputation and social status, the desire to be with friends and/or family who are already gang-involved, the promise of money, drugs, and/or excitement, and cultural pride and identification with one’s neighborhood. In contrast, because of the high levels of neighborhood crime and violence, some youth perceive gangs as providing protection (see the FAQ number 15 concerning victimization) and/or are fearful of the consequences if they do not join.

It is important to note that the pushes and pulls of gang membership are not necessarily mutually exclusive, in that they may simultaneously impact a youth’s decision to join a gang. However, by and large, numerous studies have found that youth themselves are more likely to report being “pulled” into the gang. This is especially evident in widespread accounts of youth who report joining the gang based on the social desire to be around gang-involved friends and/or family. In comparison, youth less frequently report being coerced or actively recruited to join the gang. This finding is important to note, since the latter is commonly (though erroneously) believed to be the primary reason youth join gangs, with many states developing legislation to criminalize and punish active recruitment.

Finally, it is also important to point out that the process of joining a gang is a gradual one. Youth may begin at a “gang-marginal status” by hanging around other gang members or having older family members in the gang, leading some to join later and others to remain in a marginal status or to disassociate entirely. For those who join, some may become increasingly embedded within the gang life, while others remain at the periphery. That is, gang membership patterns are dynamic and multilayered and are not reliably reducible to a simple gang-versus-nongang perspective.

14. What are risk factors for gang membership?

Risk factors are variables increase the likelihood of the outcome in question—in this case, gang membership. Gang research scholars have discovered a multitude of risk factors that are statistically linked to gang joining. These individual risk factors span the many dimensions in a youth’s life and are typically grouped into five categories (called “domains”): individual, family, school, peer, and neighborhood/community. Importantly, however, these extensive research studies have demonstrated that there is no one risk factor (or even domain) responsible for gang joining; rather, it is the accumulation of multiple risk factors across multiple domains that greatly increases gang joining. Thus, put another way, gang joining is not reducible to a single risk factor (e.g., single-parent household), since some youth with the risk factor may not join a gang, and some youth without the risk factor may join. It is far more profitable, then, to assess (and ultimately address) the collection of risk factors across the five social domains to prevent gang joining.

15. What are the short-term and long-term consequences of joining a gang?

As noted in FAQ number 13, youth often report joining a gang for protection. However, as numerous research studies have shown, the risk and rate of victimization, especially violent victimization, increases substantially while youth are in a gang. This finding is notably similar to that of the increase in the criminal offending rate during periods of active gang membership (noted in FAQ number 4). Thus, there is a seemingly paradoxical relationship between the expectation that joining a gang will provide protection from violence and the fact that actual rate (and risk) of victimization while in a gang increases. Research specifically examining this issue points to a compelling explanation: Given the “choice” between seemingly random acts of street violence when not in a gang versus the more structured and less random acts within the gang culture (including the sense of group protection that being part of a gang engenders), individuals are more likely to choose to belong to a gang. That is, the source of the risk of violence is qualitatively different (e.g., from a rival gang) while in a gang, which individuals cognitively perceive as being more predictable and manageable, and thus preferable. This explanation is important to consider when developing effective interventions with current gang members, since increased levels of neighborhood street violence may counteract incentives for individuals to leave the gang.

Following individuals over time (i.e., longitudinally) has also afforded researchers the opportunity to examine the long-term consequences of gang membership. The effects of gang membership, especially for members who remained in the gang for longer periods and/or were deeply embedded in the gang life, have been shown to negatively impact individuals well after leaving the gang. Some of the negative outcomes linked to prolonged gang membership include dropping out of school, early parenthood, and lack of or unstable employment. These long-term consequences are supplemental to the increased risk of being arrested, having a criminal record, and incarceration—which stems from the increased involvement in criminal offending while in a gang—which further reduces the probability of a successful transition from adolescence to adulthood. Further, in a recent study specifically examining this issue, researchers found that adolescent gang membership was linked to other public health issues, such as alcohol and drug abuse and/or dependence, poor general health, and poor mental health during adulthood. Thus, gang membership, especially long-term membership and/or increased embeddedness in the gang, exacts a toll that extends far beyond periods of active membership.

16. Why and how do youth leave a gang?

It is commonly repeated that once a person joins a gang, he or she can never get out (the so-called “blood-in, blood-out” assertion). However, as noted in FAQ number 10, for many youth membership in a gang is a fleeting occurrence, with a large proportion remaining in the gang for only a relatively short period of time (i.e., for a year or two). The processes by which youth leave gangs, often referred to as “desistance,” are similar to the “push” and “pull” processes by which youth join gangs, although the specific reasons are often very different. The reasons individuals report for leaving the gang include growing out of the gang life; disillusionment with the gang life; settling down, getting a stable job, and/or family needs; unanticipated aspects of the gang life; gang violence experienced by the individual or someone close to the individual; and a constant future risk of being a victim of gang violence. While the topic of gang desistance is relatively newer across the field of gang research, preliminary evidence indicates that youth are more likely to be “pushed” out of the gang life because of the very same factors that “pulled” them into the gang in the first place—fear of the consequences of violence and victimization.

How youth leave a gang is also instructive in understanding the gang process. Similar to the gang-joining process, desisting from gang membership is best described as gradual, taking place over an extended period of time. This is understandable, after all, since desisting from gangs involves disassociating and severing social ties with friends and/or family members who are gang-involved and may entail many attempts, both cognitively and behaviorally. Also, this process may be interrupted or entirely negated because of outside influences, such as the perception by rival gangs and/or law enforcement that the individual is still an active gang member. Importantly, although it is commonly repeated otherwise, the available evidence demonstrates that most individuals stated that they left the gang without the fear or experience of physical consequences from the gang.

17. What can be done about street and youth gangs?

Gangs and gang violence have become increasingly complex, lethal, and resistant to prevention and control over the years. Overreliance on one strategy is unlikely to produce fundamental changes in the scope and severity of a community’s gang problem. Instead, communities should adopt a comprehensive, multifaceted, collaborative approach that involves prevention strategies for youth at risk of gang joining, intervention strategies for youth and young adults who are gang-involved, and suppression strategies in areas where gang violence threatens the public safety of a community.

A community’s responses to its gang problem must be based on a solid theoretical understanding of gangs—their social patterns and individual member behaviors—as well as programs and practices supported by systematic research and successful experience in the field. Once a community acknowledges that a youth street gang problem exists, a thorough assessment is needed to identify specific components of the problems, analyze the causes, and identify the resources currently available, as well as the resources needed (see Comprehensive Gang Model Assessment Guide). Such an assessment can reliably measure the scope and depth of the youth and street gang problem in a given community.

Community stakeholder participation should ideally include active engagement from law enforcement agencies, schools, grassroots organizations, youth agencies, government agencies, and civic organizations. Using the assessment as a foundation, key stakeholders can develop a plan to respond to their gang problem that is tailored to the unique needs and resources of that community (see Comprehensive Gang Model Implementation Manual). Ideally, a community should develop a continuum of developmentally appropriate programs and strategies to target gang-involved individuals at all ages and risk levels. A community should implement strategies that have been demonstrated to work (see http://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/About/Strategic-Planning-Tool).

There is no quick, easy fix when responding to street and youth gang problems in a community. Both emerging and entrenched gang problems are the consequence of years of compounding, complex factors. A comprehensive, systematic approach to address these complexities will take focused determination and hard work.

Bibliography

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  • Decker, S. (1996). Gangs and violence: The expressive character of collective involvement. Justice Quarterly, 11, 231–250. (see question 8)
  • Decker, S. H. (1996). Collective and normative features of gang violence. Justice Quarterly, 13(2), 243–264. (see question 8)
  • Decker, S. H. and Pyrooz, D. C. (2010). On the validity and reliability of gang homicide: A comparison of disparate sources. Homicide Studies, 14(4), 359–376. (see questions 4, 5)
  • Decker, S. H., Bynum, T. S., and Weisel, D. L. (1998). Gangs as organized crime groups: A tale of two cities. Justice Quarterly, 15, 395–423. (see question 2)
  • Decker, S. H., Katz, C. M., and Webb, V. J. (2007). Understanding the black box of gang organization: Implications for involvement in violent crime, drug sales, and violent victimization. Crime and Delinquency. (see questions 2, 8)
  • Decker, S. H., Pyrooz, D. C., and Moule, R. K. (2014). Disengagement from gangs as role transitions. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 24(2), 268–283. (see questions 2, 16)
  • Decker, S. and Pyrooz, D. (2011). Gangs, terrorism, and radicalization. Journal of Strategic Security, 4(4), 151–166. (see question 2)
  • Egley, A., Jr. and Howell, J. C. (2012). Highlights of the 2010 national youth gang survey. Fact Sheet. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice. PDF filehttp://www.ojjdp.gov/pubs/237542.pdf. (see questions 3, 4, 5, 8, 9)
  • ---. (2013). Highlights of the 2011 national youth gang survey. Fact Sheet. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice. PDF filehttp://www.ojjdp.gov/pubs/242884.pdf. (see questions 3, 4, 5, 8)
  • Egley, A., Jr., Howell, J. C., and Major, A. K. (2004). Recent Patterns of Gang Problems in the United States: Results From the 1996–2002 National Youth Gang Surveys. In F. A. Esbensen, S. G. Tibbetts, and L. Gaines (eds.), American Youth Gangs at the Millennium (pp. 90–108). Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc. (see questions 3, 4)
  • ---. (2006). National Youth Gang Survey: 1999–2001. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Available for download at PDF filehttp://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/209392.pdf. (see questions 3, 4, 5, 11, 12)
  • Esbensen, F. A. and Carson, D. C. (2012). Who are the gangsters? An examination of the age, race/ethnicity, sex, and immigration status of self-reported gang members in a seven-city study of American youth. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 1043986212458192. (see questions 6, 10, 11, 12)
  • Esbensen, F. A. and Huizinga, D. (1993). Gangs, drugs, and delinquency in a survey of urban youth. Criminology, 31, 565–89. (see question 10)
  • Esbensen, F. A., Osgood, W., Peterson, D., Taylor, T. J., Carson, D., Freng, A., and Matsuda, K. (2013). Process and Outcome Evaluation of the G.R.E.A.T. Program. PDF filehttps://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/244346.pdf. (see questions 10, 11, 12)
  • Esbensen, F. A., Peterson, D., Taylor, T. J., and Freng, A. (2010). Youth Violence: Sex and Race Differences in Offending, Victimization, and Gang Membership. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press. (see questions 1, 6, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14)
  • Esbensen, F. A., Winfree, L. T., Jr., He, N., and Taylor. T. J. (2001). Youth gangs and definitional issues: When is a gang a gang, and why does it matter? Crime and Delinquency, 47, 105–130. (see questions 1, 6, 10, 11, 12)
  • Esbensen, F. and Tusinski, K. (2007). Youth gangs in the print media. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 14(1), 21–38. (see question 3)
  • Gilman, A. B., Hill, K. G., and Hawkins, J. D. (2014). Long-term consequences of adolescent gang membership for adult functioning. American Journal of Public Health, 104(5), 938–945. (see question 16)
  • Gilman, A. B., Hill, K. G., Hawkins, J. D., Howell, J. C., and Kosterman, R. (2014). The developmental dynamics of joining a gang in adolescence: Patterns and predictors of gang membership. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 24(2), 204–219. (see questions 10, 12, 14)
  • Gordon, R. A., Lahey, B. B., Kawai, E., Loeber, R., Stouthamer-Loeber, M., and Farrington, D. P. (2004). Antisocial behavior and youth gang membership: Selection and socialization. Criminology, 42(1), 55–88. (see questions 6, 10, 14)
  • Hill, K. G., Lui, C., and Hawkins, J. D. (2001). Early Precursors of Gang Membership: A Study of Seattle Youth. Bulletin. Youth Gang Series. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Available for download at PDF filehttp://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/190106.pdf. (see questions 6, 10, 12, 14)
  • Howell, J. C. (2007). Menacing or mimicking? Realities of youth gangs. Juvenile and Family Court Journal, 58(2), 39–50. (see questions 2, 7, 10, 11, 12)
  • ---. (2011). Gangs in America’s Communities. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications. (see questions 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17)
  • Howell, J. C. and Egley, A., Jr. (2005). Moving risk factors into developmental theories of gang membership. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 3(4), 334–354. (see questions 14, 15)
  • Howell, J. C. and Decker, S. H. (1999). The youth gangs, drugs, and violence connection. Juvenile Justice Bulletin. (see question 8)
  • Howell, J. C., Egley, A., Jr., Tita, G. E., and Griffiths, E. (2011). U.S. Gang Problem Trends and Seriousness, 1996–2009. National Gang Center Bulletin. (see questions 3, 4, 5)
  • Katz, C. M. and Schnebly, S. M. (2011). Neighborhood variation in gang member concentrations. Crime and Delinquency, 57(3), 377–407. (see question 11)
  • Katz, C. M., Fox, A. M., Britt, C. L., and Stevenson, P. (2012). Understanding police gang data at the aggregate level: An examination of the reliability of National Youth Gang Survey data. Justice Research and Policy, 14(2), 103–128. (see question 4)
  • Klein, M. W. (1995.) Street Gang Cycles. In J. Q. Wilson and J. Petersilia (eds.), Crime (pp. 217–236). San Francisco, California: Institute for Contemporary Studies. [FAQ 3] (see question 3)
  • ---. (1995.) The American Street Gang. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. (see questions 1, 2, 8)
  • ---. (2004). Gang Cop: The Words and Ways of Officer Paco Domingo. Walnut Creek, California: Alta Mira Press. (see questions 2, 7)
  • Klein, M. W. and Maxson, C. L. (2010). Street Gang Patterns and Policies. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. (see questions 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14)
  • Krohn, M. D. and Thornberry, T. P. (2008). Longitudinal perspectives on adolescent street gangs. In The Long View of Crime: A Synthesis of Longitudinal Research (pp. 128–160). New York, NY: Springer. (see questions 6, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16)
  • Krohn, M. D., Ward, J. T., Thornberry, T. P., Lizotte, A. J., and Chu, R. (2011). The cascading effects of adolescent gang involvement across the life course. Criminology, 49(4), 991–1028. (see question 15)
  • Maxson, C. L. (1998). Gang Members on the Move. Bulletin. Youth Gang Series. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Available for download at PDF filehttp://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles/171153.pdf. (see question 9)
  • Maxson, C. L., Curry, G. D., and Howell. J. C. (2002). Youth Gang Homicides in the United States in the 1990s. In W. Reed and S. Decker (eds.), Responding to Gangs: Evaluation and Research (pp. 107–137). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice. Available for download at PDF filehttp://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/190351.pdf. (see question 5)
  • Melde, C. and Esbensen, F. A. (2013). Gangs and violence: Disentangling the impact of gang membership on the level and nature of offending. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 29(2), 143–166. (see questions 6, 8)
  • ---. (2013). The relative impact of gang status transitions: Identifying the mechanisms of change in delinquency. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 0022427813507059. (see question 8)
  • Melde, C., Diem, C., and Drake, G. (2012). Identifying correlates of stable gang membership. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 28(4), 482–498. (see questions 10, 11, 12, 14, 15)
  • Miller, W. B. (1982/1992). Crime by Youth Gangs and Groups in the United States. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. (see question 1)
  • Moore, J. W. and Hagedorn, J. M. (2001). Female Gangs: A Focus on Research. Bulletin. Youth Gang Series. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Available for download at PDF filehttp://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/186159.pdf. (see question 12)
  • Papachristos, A. V. (2009). Murder by structure: Dominance relations and the social structure of gang homicide. American Journal of Sociology, 115(1), 74–128. (see questions 5, 8)
  • Peterson, D. (2012). Girlfriends, Gun-Holders, and Ghetto-Rats? Moving Beyond Narrow Views of Girls in Gangs. In Delinquent Girls (pp. 71–84). New York, NY: Springer. (see question 12)
  • Peterson, D., Miller, J., and Esbensen, F. (2001). The impact of sex composition on gangs and gang delinquency. Criminology, 39(2), 411–439. (see questions 6, 12)
  • ---. (2004). Gang membership and violent victimization. Justice Quarterly, 21(4), 794–815. (see question 15)
  • Pyrooz, D. C. (2012). Structural covariates of gang homicide in large U.S. cities. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 49(4), 489–518. (see questions 4, 5)
  • ---. (2014). From your first cigarette to your last dyin’ day: The patterning of gang membership in the life-course. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 30(2), 349–372. (see questions 10, 11, 14)
  • ---. (2014). From colors and guns to caps and gowns? The effects of gang membership on educational attainment. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 51(1), 56–87. (see question 15)
  • Pyrooz, D. C. and Decker, S. H. (2011). Motives and methods for leaving the gang: Understanding the process of gang desistance. Journal of Criminal Justice, 39(5), 417–425. (see question 16)
  • Pyrooz, D. C., Decker, S. H., and Webb, V. J. (2014). The ties that bind: Desistance from gangs. Crime and Delinquency, 60(4), 491–516. (see question 16)
  • Pyrooz, D. C., Moule, R. K., and Decker, S. H. (2014). The contribution of gang membership to the victim–offender overlap. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 51(3), 315–348. (see question 6)
  • Pyrooz, D. C., Sweeten, G., and Piquero, A. R. (2012). Continuity and change in gang membership and gang embeddedness. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 0022427811434830. (see questions 10, 13, 14, 15)
  • Rosenfeld, R., Bray, T. M., and Egley, A. (1999). Facilitating violence: A comparison of gang-motivated, gang-affiliated, and nongang youth homicides. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 15(4), 495–516. (see question 8)
  • Simon, T. R., Ritter, N. M., and Mahendra, R. R. (2013). Changing Course: Preventing Gang Membership. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice and Atlanta, Georgia: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Retrieved from PDF filehttps://ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/239234.pdf. (see question 17)
  • Spergel, I. A. (1995). The Youth Gang Problem. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. (see questions 1, 2)
  • Starbuck, D., Howell, J. C., and Lindquist, D. J. (2001). Hybrid and Other Modern Gangs. Bulletin. Youth Gang Series. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Available for download at PDF filehttp://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/Content/Documents/Hybrid-and-Other-Modern-Gangs.pdf. (see question 7)
  • Sweeten, G., Pyrooz, D. C., and Piquero, A. R. (2013). Disengaging from gangs and desistance from crime. Justice Quarterly, 30(3), 469–500. (see question 16)
  • Taylor, T. J. (2008). The boulevard ain’t safe for your kids: Youth gang membership and violent victimization. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 24(2), 125–136. (see question 15)
  • Taylor, T. J., Freng, A., Esbensen, F., and Peterson, D. (2008). Youth gang membership and serious violent victimization: The importance of lifestyles and routine activities. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 23, 1441–1464. (see question 15)
  • Taylor, T. J., Peterson, D., Esbensen, F. A., and Freng, A. (2007). Gang membership as a risk factor for adolescent violent victimization. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 44(4), 351–380. (see question 15)
  • Thornberry, T. P. (1998). Membership in Youth Gangs and Involvement in Serious and Violent Offending. In R. Loeber and D. P. Farrington (eds.), Serious and Violent Juvenile Offenders: Risk Factors and Successful Interventions. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications. (see questions 6, 10, 11, 13, 14)
  • Thornberry, T. P., Huizinga, D., and Loeber, R. (2004). The causes and correlates studies: Findings and policy implications. Juvenile Justice, 10(1), 3–19. Available for download at PDF filehttp://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/203555.pdf. (see questions 6, 10, 13, 14)
  • Thornberry, T. P., Krohn, M. D., Lizotte, A. J., Smith, C. A., and Tobin, K. (2003). Gangs and Delinquency in Developmental Perspective. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. (see questions 6, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14)
  • Tita, G. and Abrahamse, A. (2004). Gang Homicide in LA, 1981–2001. Sacramento, California: California Attorney General’s Office. (see questions 5, 8)
  • Valdez, A., Cepeda, A., and Kaplan, C. (2009). Homicidal events among Mexican American street gangs: A situational analysis. Homicide Studies, 13(3), 288–306. (see question 8)
  • Wyrick, P. A. and Howell, J. C. (2004). Strategic risk-based response to youth gangs. Juvenile Justice, 9(1), 20–29. (see question 17)

Prepared by: National Gang Center staff.