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:
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.
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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.
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.
Risk factors are variables that increase the likelihood of the outcome in question—in this case, gang membership. Many studies have identified causes, or risk factors, which, if present for a given individual, make it more likely that he or she will develop a problem behavior, including joining a gang. These extensive research studies have demonstrated that no one risk factor is 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.
Although the influence of risk factors and protective factors changes in the course of child and adolescent development (Howell, Lipsey, and Wilson, 2014), one study found that the effects of risk and protective factors for gang involvement did not vary with age, through age 19 (Gilman, Hill, Hawkins, Howell, et al., 2014). The study authors suggest that this finding may be owing to the multiple studies showing that gang members are distinctively different from ordinary delinquents in that they possess more risk factors and generally experience them in multiple developmental domains during childhood and early adolescence, thereby generating enduring effects. Thus, communities should develop a continuum of developmentally appropriate programs and strategies to target at-risk youth and gang-involved individuals at all ages and risk levels. Communities should implement strategies and programs that have been demonstrated to work.
Juvenile delinquency is a precursor behavior to gang membership. Put otherwise, virtually all youth who join a gang evidence prior delinquency involvement. Studies also show that antecedents of gang involvement begin to come into play long before youth reach a typical age for joining a gang. For the highest-risk youth, a stepping-stone pattern appears to begin as early as ages 3–4 with the emergence of conduct problems, followed by elementary school failure at ages 6–12; delinquency onset by age 12; gang-joining around ages 13–15; and serious, violent, and chronic delinquency onward from mid-adolescence (Howell and Egley, 2005). Therefore, risk factors for both delinquency and gang membership are included in this review, and communities that wish to prevent and reduce gang involvement are encouraged to address risk factors for juvenile delinquency at the same time. The Strategic Planning Tool (SPT) includes both sets of risk factors, and those that increase the risk of gang joining are asterisked.
Completing a thorough assessment of the gang problem achieves the following results for communities:
Develops a structure and a mechanism for organized and ongoing data collection relating to implementation of the Model.
Creates a common understanding of the gang problem among key agencies and gains buy-in from these agencies.
Identifies the most appropriate target area for the Model.
Identifies the demographics of the client population that is most heavily involved in gang-related crimes for suppression and intervention activities.
Allows the community to quantify, on paper, the types of crimes that gangs are committing in the community, the factors in the community that have given rise to (and perpetuate) the local gang culture, and the gaps in existing services and resources.
Allows the community to strategically target specific problems with effective strategies.
Creates a numerical baseline of the problem for measuring the impact of the Model in the community.
Most important, communities that have conducted a comprehensive assessment and implemented the Model have been more likely to sustain the Model structure long-term than those areas where an assessment was not conducted.
Based on the status of data availability, the level and extent of the assessment that is contemplated, and the availability of the assessment work group members to collect data, it can take communities from 3 to 12 months to complete a comprehensive assessment and prepare an assessment report.
Most of the data that should be collected during the assessment is relatively simple to analyze and interpret. The types of data to collect, along with samples of how these data can be reported, are discussed in depth in the assessment manual. For more complex types of data, such as the student surveys and gang member interviews, it is advisable that communities work with a research partner, usually someone from a local college, university, or other research organization, who can provide data collection and analysis experience and skills.