Serious Delinquency and Gang Membership


Youth gangs are a recognized risk factor for adolescent violence and delinquency. This article reviews recent research on these topics, including the prevalence, characteristics and influence of youth gangs, and discusses the implications of those findings for clinical practice.

Psychiatric Times

April 2005


Issue 4

Youth gangs have long been present in the United States, but were previously only in large urban centers. This changed dramatically in the late 1980s (Miller, 2001), when youth gangs started to appear in smaller cities and suburban areas across the United States along with a rapid rise in their numbers and membership (Figure) (Howell, 1994; Miller, 2001). By 1995, youth gangs were found in all 50 states, with a presence in over 1,500 cities and 700 counties.

Multiple reasons for this increase have been presented, including the economy and growth of an urban underclass, crack cocaine and other drug trade, gang migration, and gang subculture in the popular media (Miller, 2001). There is little agreement on this issue except that it was most likely the result of several factors.

In response to the alarming growth of youth gangs, the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention organized the National Youth Gang Center (NYGC) to collect information about youth gangs in U.S. communities. In the most recent NYGC survey of law enforcement agencies, it was estimated that youth gangs were present in more than 2,300 cities with populations greater than 2,500 and over 550 counties (Egley and Major, 2004). While this represents a continued slight decline from the peak numbers of 1997, the change is primarily the result of decreased gang activity in small cities and rural areas. The total numbers still remain far greater than pre-1990 levels in all types of communities. In addition, the 2002 survey found that 42% of survey participants described worsening gang problems--an increase from the 27% in the 2001 survey (Egley and Major, 2004).

In a separate study on youth gang prevalence of almost 6,000 eighth-grade students in 11 cities, 11% reported being a current gang member, and 17% reported belonging to a gang at some time in their life (Esbensen and Deschenes, 1998). Gang membership ranges from 14% to 30% in samples of at-risk youth in larger urban centers (Thornberry, 1998).

Characteristics of Youth Gangs

Experts differ in their opinion as to what constitutes a youth gang as opposed to a deviant adolescent peer group (Curry and Decker, 1998; Klein, 1995). Most researchers define a gang as youths recognized by their community and themselves as a distinct social group involved in criminal behavior. There are other groups involved in crime, such as hate groups, motorcycle gangs and prison gangs, but these are generally considered to be different from youth gangs. Gangs are typically characterized by a name, a recognized leader or leadership, and home territory or turf (Klein, 1995). Gangs will also establish their identity through the use of dress, speech, signs and graffiti (Knox, 1991).

Contrary to popular belief, most gang members do not belong for life but only for a year or so (Esbensen and Huizinga, 1993; Spergel et al., 1994). Most gang members are between ages 12 and 24 (average age=18) (Curry and Decker, 1998). Analysis of trends in age distribution within gangs indicate that the median age has increased in the past decade and that membership may be aging (Howell et al., 2002).The size of a gang can vary greatly, but generally ranges from five to 25 members, and larger gangs will tend to be composed of smaller cliques (Spergel et al., 1994).

The 1999 NYGC survey reported the racial and ethnic distribution of gang members as 47% Hispanic, 31% African-American, 13% white, 7% Asian and 2% other groups (Egley, 2000). The survey also described the socioeconomic status of gang members as 50% underclass, 35% working class, 12% middle class and 3% upper middle class. While gangs tend to be ethnically homogeneous and composed of minorities, these features reflect the neighborhoods where they are more likely to be found and recruit their members (Bursik and Grasmick, 1993; Spergel et al., 1994). In other words, if the neighborhood is integrated, then the gang will be integrated.

The rapid increase and appearance of youth gangs in smaller communities may indicate that newer gangs are different from those encountered in the past (Howell et al., 2001; Starbuck et al., 2001). Comparisons between gangs in older, established gang communities and those with more recent appearance of gang activity indicate that newer gangs tend to be younger in age, have a higher proportion of white and African-American members and are more likely to be ethnically mixed (Howell et al., 2002).

Another recent change may be the presence and role of female gang members. While youth gangs remain a predominantly male phenomenon, the proportion of female gang members increased in the 1990s (Moore and Hagedorn, 2001). Far less is known about female gang members, as research and law enforcement efforts have focused primarily on males. Estimates place female gang membership at about 4%, although this is probably low (Curry, 2001). In the previously mentioned survey of eighth-grade students, 38% reporting gang membership were female (Esbensen et al., 1999). Others estimate that between one-fourth and one-third of gang members are female (Maxson and Whitlock, 2001). While there continue to be all-girl gangs, the proportion of mixed gender gangs has increased (Starbuck et al., 2001).

Risk Factors for Membership

Some studies have suggested that gang members have more problems with social relationships, lower self-esteem and symptoms of depression than youth who are not gang members (Thornberry, 1998; Wang, 1994; Yablonsky, 1962). Other investigations have found that there were no significant differences between gang members and other delinquents with respect to emotional problems (Hill et al., 1999; Maxson et al., 1998; Thomas et al., 2003). An early history of antisocial behavior; availability and early use of marijuana; parent-child conflict; poor academic performance and school attachment; or living in a troubled neighborhood with high rates of delinquency increases the likelihood of gang membership. Furthermore, the effect of these risk factors is cumulative (Hill et al., 2001; Thornberry et al., 2003).

Gang Violence

Gang membership is strongly associated with violence. Gang members are more violent and commit more offenses than delinquents who are not gang members (Esbensen and Huizinga, 1993; Huff, 1996; Thomas et al., 2003). Gang members are also more likely to have and use guns than other delinquents (Hutson et al., 1995; Maxson et al., 1985; Thornberry et al., 2003). Youth gangs commit a disproportionate share of criminal acts in communities, especially violent offenses (Thornberry, 1998). The influence of gangs on violent behavior in adolescence is greater than that from associating with antisocial peers (Battin et al., 1998, Thomas et al., 2003).

A longitudinal study indicated that it is active participation in a gang that exacerbates delinquency and aggression, rather than gangs recruiting more violent individuals (Thornberry et al., 1993). This study also found that the effect is not permanent, and if a youth quits a gang, violent behavior usually decreases. In addition to committing violent acts, gang members are also more likely to be victims of violence with a greater than three times increased risk for victimization (Loeber et al., 2001).

There was a sharp increase in youth violence and homicide at the same time as youth gangs proliferated and spread in the early 1990s. The 2002 NYGC survey reported an association between youth gangs and homicide, with 655 gang-related homicides in Chicago and Los Angeles alone, accounting for approximately half of the total number of homicides in those two cities (Egley and Major, 2004). Many viewed the rise in youth gang activity as a reason for the severe increase in youth violence (Snyder et al., 1996). Other researchers argued that the increase in the illegal drug trade, particularly crack cocaine, was a cause for the increases in both gangs and juvenile violence (Blumstein, 1995).

In contrast, Block and Block (1993) in their study of Chicago gangs found that the relationship between gangs, drugs and homicide was weak and did not explain the increase in youth homicide in that city.

It is also important to note that although youth violence and juvenile homicides began to decline in 1995, the overall numbers and presence of gangs across the United States has changed very little during the same period (Figure). Comparisons of law enforcement reports on gangs indicate the use of firearms and violent crimes may be less frequent in newer gang communities (Howell et al., 2002). While other factors are certainly involved, it is generally agreed that involvement in youth gangs is a significant contributing risk factor for adolescent violence (Office of the Surgeon General, 2001).

Gangs and Drugs

There are two aspects to consider for drugs and youth gangs--drug trafficking and drug use. While youth gangs did become involved in trafficking drugs, research has found that gang migration as part of the drug trade is extremely uncommon and could not explain the rapid spread of gangs (Maxson, 1998).

It has also been found that youth gangs only account for a small portion of drug trafficking in most communities and their involvement in the drug trade does not explain their other criminal offenses, including violence (Howell and Gleason, 1999).

As for drug use by gang members, early marijuana use is a predictive risk factor for later gang involvement (Hill et al., 2001), belonging to a gang increases drug use (Battin-Pearson et al., 1998) and involvement with drug use and, unlike other criminal behaviors, dealing does not decrease after leaving the gang (Thornberry, 1998).

Implications for Practice

The spread of gangs is no longer confined to a few large inner-city areas. Clinicians working with troubled youth must consider the risks with gang involvement for increased violence, delinquency and drug use. These effects appear to be more than just the influence of antisocial peers. Gang involvement should be assessed in any adolescent with antisocial behavior. Given the disproportionate amount of violence and other offenses committed by gang members, decreasing gang involvement and activity would greatly reduce delinquency in communities.

Clinical and community programs directed at the identified risk factors of early antisocial behavior, parent-child problems or academic difficulties may help in preventing gang involvement (Esbensen, 2000). Intervention programs should also be considered as violence and other offenses decrease upon leaving the gang. The continued problems of drug use and dealing in former gang members require particular attention with intervention efforts. Promising prevention and intervention programs have been developed and implemented (Howell, 2000). While additional research is needed in understanding the complex relationships between youth, gangs, violence, drugs and communities, the current problems of youth gangs require action.

Dr. Thomas is professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Training at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.


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