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Gang Influence On Juvenile Violence

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In recent years, gangs, and gang influence has played a major role on the effect of juveniles, and the rate at which they act with violence. Gang membership in adolescence can be linked to serious and violent crime resulting in long term effects in adulthood.

What is a gang?

While there is no universally agreed upon definition of a “gang”, the terms “youth gang” and “street gang” are used most commonly. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) federally defines a “gang” as “members who collectively identify themselves by adopting a group identity, which they use to create an atmosphere of fear or intimidation…” (National Institute of Justice, 2011, p. 4). Gangs and gang members can be identified by having a common name or slogan with identifiable hand signs, having an identifiable tattoo or physical marking, or often wear the same color clothing. These such organizations often have the intent to engage in criminal activity while using violence and intimidation to act on and further their criminal objectives and motives. Gangs are also seen possessing similar characteristics, such as having structured rules for operation and joining members, while meeting on a regular basis. Members of such organizations may provide physical protection for members from outsiders, and often times have their own identifiable structure. The most notable characteristic of gangs is seeking to control a specific location or region while also controlling goods or interests from rivals or outsiders. Identifying gang membership can often be emphasized by gang related or affiliated tattoos or symbols, and by being arrested for known gang behavior and crimes, or interacting with known gang affiliates and members. The National Gang Center (NGC) provides a chart that reveals the number one leading designating factor in determining gang membership in a jurisdiction is displaying gang symbols, colors, and tattoos at 66.1% frequency of use. This factor is followed by arrested or known associates at 55.9%, self-nomination in a custodial setting at 53.9%, and identified by a reliable informant at 25.3% (National Gang Center, Chart 1).

[bookmark: A1] Gangs are not always found just on the streets, as some gang members are reported in the schools as well. In 1989, 15 percent of students (approximately 3,301,000) reported street gangs in their school (National Center for Education Statistics, 1995). In a separate 1989 survey, students reported that the presence of gangs in their schools were higher in urban areas (27 percent) than in suburban (15 percent) or rural areas (8 percent). Therefore, gang presence in schools, are not just an urban-area problem. Students at schools with gangs consistently reported much higher victimization rates and levels of fear than students at schools without gangs (NCES, 1995).

The average age for a gang member is between 12-24, whereas in youth gangs, the average age is 17-18. The number of members in a gang range widely depending on the type of gang, however, male gang members outnumber female members by a large margin. Despite not having similar numbers in gangs as males do, females still do have a steady involvement in gangs. It is estimated that when considering all gang involvement, females account for 10% of all members (Miller 1992). Traditional gangs, such as those who are territorial and control land typically average around 180 members, while specialty gangs, those who operate in trafficking etc. average around only 25 members (Klein and Maxon, 1996). Certain crimes can be traced back to specific racial and ethnic youth gangs. African American gangs are typically involved in drug related offenses, Hispanic gangs are involved in more territorial, or “turf-related” offenses, and Asian and White gangs are affiliated with property related crimes (Block, 1996; Spergel, 1990).

Why do youth join gangs?

Youth and juveniles join gangs for many reasons, mainly including social, economic, and cultural factors. There are many “pushes and pulls” that can lead a juvenile into joining a gang. Negative conditions can push youth into the direction of gang, which may be coupled by what may appear as positive opportunities that pull youth in further. These pushes and pulls are known as risk factors (National Gang Center). Risk factors increase the opportunity for youth to join gangs; the more factors, the more likely one is to join a gang. Such factors can be placed into five categories; individual, family, school, peer, and community. Individual risk factors include: problem behavior, or “acting out” including aggressiveness or impulsivity, antisocial beliefs, negative life events, such as the death of a parent, school expulsion, etc., or becoming a victim within the home or community. Adolescence at risk also do not see any wrong within their actions, everything is justifiable, and lacking the ability to take ownership for their own wrongdoings; blaming their problems on someone else. Parenting also plays a major role in the risk factors towards youth gang membership. Parents or care takers who provide unrestricted access to peers, parents who lack oversight and control and lack consistent rules and discipline, do not provide their child with the necessary means to not be at risk. Adolescences who have poor parental supervision and lack enforcement, or who are inconsistent and provide disengaging parenting also allow youth to drift off into the influence of others, i.e., the introduction of gangs to one’s life. Children may also experience risk factors in the school environment as well. Risk factors at school include poor school performance, lacking any aspiration, low school or teacher attachment, coupled by frequent suspension or expulsion. Students who are labeled “special needs students” or “slow learners” are also at an increased odds of obtaining such risk factors.

An individual who partakes in early delinquency and violent behavior, has a troubled home life that displays forms of domestic violence, attends a school environment that is unhealthy and is accompanied by limited peer and social interactions and relationships, or lives in a community heavily influenced by the presence of guns, drugs, and violence, are all signs that a juvenile could be at risk to potentially join a gang.

Female involvement and membership within gangs, as stated by Glendy Garcia, gang intervention specialist, typically stems from the lack of a father figure at home, coupled by the mother dating or is remarried to a new man. This man then victimizes the daughter at a very young age in which the daughter tells the mother, but the mother does not believe her child and blames her, and then chooses to take her partner’s side. The daughter then continues to live in the household and continues to be abused and victimized to the point where she develops a substance abuse issue and eventually runs away where she is met and comforted by the membership of a gang.

Youth gangs are typically located in lower-class, ghetto, or working-class communities. In these types of communities, gang membership offers opportunities in a change of lifestyle through the selling of drugs and making money (Pennell, 1994). These opportunities allow youth to obtain money that could potentially change the way they or their family unit lives. Any some of money has the power to heavily influence or coerce someone into committing acts, whether they be criminal or violent. Some juveniles also join gangs to feel a sense of belonging, to create relationships that give them their own identity. Many adolescences want to feel loved or cared for, and want someone to finally accept them and value them. In some cases, youth join gangs as a mean of protection from other rival gangs or just a general safety net. In other cases, youth are forced or born into gangs as a result of their parent’s or family member relations to gang affiliations. For these select juveniles, the gang way of life is all they have ever known.

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What substances are abused by gangs?

Gangs known as “street gangs”, “outlaw motorcycle gangs” and “prison gangs” are the main sources of drug distribution on the streets in the United States (National Drug Intelligence Center, 2009). Some gangs obtain millions of dollars in a month by selling and smuggling illegal drugs. Large and nationally known gangs may appear to be the greatest threat as they smuggle, produce, transport, and distribute large quantities of illegal drugs, while also acting with extreme violence. Street gang members convert powdered cocaine into crack cocaine while producing the most of phencyclidine (PCP), also known as “angel dust” available in the country. Primarily outlaw motorcycle gangs, produce marijuana and methamphetamine. Gangs are increasingly involved in the smuggling of large quantities of cocaine and marijuana, and smaller quantities of heroin, methamphetamine, and ecstasy from foreign producers (NDIC, 2009).

Gangs abuse and become involved with not only drugs but alcohol as well. Drinking can be viewed as an aspect of symbolism in a gang. Drinking is a regular part of socialization within the gang life, it can be considered a social lubricant, or social glue, to maintain not only the cohesion and social unity of the gang but also to sustain masculinity and male togetherness (Dunning, 1988). Alcohol can also be used as a “facilitator” in the observance of wild or crazy behavior, especially in violent conflicts with outsiders. Alcohol is also used commonly during new member initiation, also known as a rite of passage. New member’s toughness, ability to defend oneself, and withstand physical violence is tested during this initiation. Gang members are also seen using alcohol during a funeral to show their unity to the deceased member. In some gangs, members pour alcohol over the grave or leave alcohol by the gravesite to furthermore display their togetherness (National Institue of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and Campbell, 1991).

What crimes are committed by gangs?

Gangs and gang members can be directly linked to drug and weapon use, while engaging in a much higher level of violent crime compared to those who are do not have any gang affiliation. Gangs engage in an assortment of crime, but most notably including assault, burglary, drive-by shooting, extortion, homicide, identification fraud, money laundering, prostitution, robbery, sale of stolen property, and weapon trafficking (National Drug Intelligence Center, 2009). Some gangs collect millions of dollars by engaging in such types of crimes, then launder the earnings by investing in construction companies, motorcycle shops, real estate, recording studios, etc. Gangs may also own and operate cash-based businesses, such as strip clubs, barber shops, and even restaurants. Cash-based businesses allow the members to work with and mix drug money through a legitimate form of commerce.

In 2011, the National Gang Center released a chart recording gang-related criminal offenses. Aggravated assault was listed at the number one most common crime at 34.6 percent, just in front of firearm use at 34.1 percent, and drug sales at 30.4 percent (National Gang Center, Chart 3). In comparison between single-year members and multiple- year members, multiple year-members had a much higher rate in robbery and drug-trafficking (Hill, 1996). Gun related homicide within a gang is very much prevalent. In 1980, the percentage of homicide with a firearm during a homicide within a gang was at 70 percent. However, in 1993, almost all of gang related homicide involved a firearm at 95 percent. The percentage of gang-related homicides caused by a firearm fell slightly to 92 percent in 2008, but the percentage of homicides caused by firearms during the act or partaking of committing a felony rose from 60 percent to 74 percent from 1980 to 2005 (National Institute of Justice 2019).

Violence in gangs is also increased by gang norms, such as group functions or initiations. These factors of violence serve to intensify and strengthen the bonds of the members. Violence is also used to achieve the organizations goals in association with recruiting new members, turf or land protection and expansion, and defense of one’s identity as a member of a gang or in defense of the gang’s honor (Block and Block, 1993). Violence is contagious (Loftin, 1986) and while bunched in space, may escalate and more likely to spread among youth who are violent prone (Block and Block, 1991). Lastly, violence is also used by displaying physical toughness and fighting ability to establish the gang’s status, or to maintain control and organization within the gang (Short and Strodtbeck, 1965).

What are the effects of gang violence on juveniles?

Gang involvement as a youth, has the power and ability to greatly influence the way one may act, and lives. Gang membership as a youth, was related to advanced transitions into adulthood that then predicted disrupted family relationships and economic instability (Krohn, 2011). Krohn found that this path eventually led to criminal behaviors by the age of 30. The Life Course Theory outlines the understanding of gang membership in youths affect illegal behavior, while emphasizing the strong connection between childhood events and adulthood events (Gilman, Hawkins, Hill 2014). The Life Course Theory also infers that gang membership in adolescence may result in negative development in both criminal and noncriminal acts, while also depicting decreased educational and occupational fulfilment, and poor physical and mental health. Active gang members are much more likely than their nongang peers to engage in criminal behavior, especially serious and violent offenses and in addition, they are more likely to be involved in drug use and the selling or distribution of drugs. Gang members also have more difficulties in school and are more likely to be violently victimized (Gilman, Hill, Hawkins 2004). Adolescence who were involved in gangs were more likely to be arrested and incarcerated as adults, were also more likely to rely on illegal forms of income, and had obtained less formal education than their nongang peers (Levitt and Vankatesh 2004). Male gang members who were in membership both long-term and short-term, were found to have a greater likelihood to live cohabitation at age 22, before marriage compared to their nongang peers. Long-term gang members had significantly higher rates of unemployment, dropping out of school, and early pregnancy in adolescence, following with teenage parenthood. Female gang members are more likely to experience harder transitions into adulthood, such as unstable employment, teenage pregnancy, and early motherhood. Both female and male gang members were more likely to experience arrests and incarceration in adulthood (Thornberry 2004). In addition, youth who join gangs may experience significant changes in emotions, attitudes, and behavior, further more suggesting that gang membership may be a major turning point in one’s life (Melde and Esbensen, 2014).

Youth involvement in gangs commit an unequal share of offenses, including nonviolent offenses. It is reported that in Denver, adolescent gang members accounted for approximately three times as many violent offenses compared to youth who are not members of gangs (Esbensen and Huizinga, 1993). In addition, gang members in Rochester, committed seven times as many violent offenses or delinquent acts compared to their counterpart of nongang youth (Bjerregaard and Smith, 1993). Adolescent inclination to act with violence, and gun ownership are closely related. Gangs are more likely to recruit juveniles who own firearms, while also being twice as more likely than nongang members to carry a gun for protection or have peers that own firearms or protection, and are more likely to carry a gun outside their house (Bjerregaard and Lizotte, 1995). Most violent gang members illegally own a firearm as they believe their rival gangs also own guns, and as a result, the intensity and destructiveness of assaults appear to have increased as the availability and use of deadly weapons increased (Block and Block 1993). By having possession of more guns and more sophisticated weaponry, gangs feel as they will not be caught at a disadvantage (Horowitz).

Juveniles commit many more violent crimes and offenses while in membership with a gang, than they do after leaving a gang (Esbensen and Huizinga, 1993). However, even after leaving a gang, ex-members still commit crimes at a high rate. Gang involvement may increase individual involvement in drug use, drug trafficking, gun carrying and violence (Howell and Decker, 1993). Drug use is strongly linked with drug trafficking, which is also strongly linked with gun carrying and serious violent crimes. With the increase in drug sales, comes the increase in violence. Gangs can typically use violence as a means to control their production and distribution sales in the community. This type of violent mindset typically does not vanish quickly as the influence of a gang is long lasting.

Juvenile violence is severely effected and impacted by early involvement, influence, and presence of gangs. Gangs attract youth who come from broken homes, youth who lack attention, guidance, discipline, and love from their family unit, and youth who desire the feeling of a sense of belonging and protection. Gangs are notorious for their violent offenses involving firearm related homicides as well as the production and distribution of illegal drugs and narcotics. The long-term effect of gang influence is long lasting in respect to social and economic factors, as membership in a gang, has the power to change one’s life forever.


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“Gang Influence On Juvenile Violence.” Edubirdie, 14 Sept. 2021,
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