Criminal gangs in America date back to the end of the American Revolution in 1783; these were mainly European immigrants from Britain, Scandinavia, etc., who settled in the northwestern parts of the country (Bellair and McNulty, 2). Today, organized criminal gangs are found in more than 4000 jurisdictions across the United States. Large cities contribute the highest percentage of gangs, followed by suburban counties, smaller cities, and even rural counties. Gangs are often associated with various criminal activities ranging from drug and human trafficking to robberies, homicides, kidnappings, and violence against other gang members. According to the US Department of Justice, Office of the Justice Programs, in Los Angeles, an average of 1.6 gang-related crimes are committed daily; gang crime amounts to 49% of all violent crimes, with 13% of all homicides in the United States being gang-related. Criminal gangs take many forms in the US, ranging from street gangs motorcycle clubs to ethnic and organized crime gangs. More than 1.5 million people belong to a gang at any given point in the United States. There are several reasons why an individual may decide to join a gang—social disintegration in the family or community levels, poverty, protection, migration, and power all act as motivating factors for gang memberships (Bellair and McNulty, 3). Gang culture is a significant problem in the United States and its dangers threaten the safety of people.
The number of criminal gangs in the US and the population of individuals affiliated with a gang at any given time point to the extent and distribution of the problem in the country (Sánchez-Jankowski, 2). The number of organized gangs has been rising in the country since 2003; gangs and gang violence are a significant threat to public safety, impacting individuals, families, and neighborhoods. While joining a gang may be associated with a false sense of security, young people in gangs are much more likely to be victims of physical violence, being arrested, and even dying. Substance abuse also becomes more likely; studies have shown that most gang members suffer from drug and substance abuse, putting them at high risk of addiction and other drug-related effects such as violence (Sánchez-Jankowski, 3).
Gang affiliation means that families are also involved; affiliation with any gang means that the family may also get involved too. These families are at risk of violence, harm, or death, and families often separate and move away from each other because a loved one is in the gang (Soft White Underbelly and Laita). These families may also have to pay legal fees for those incarcerated. In instances where families may not pay legal fees, a family member may go to prison. Family breakdown is one of the primary reasons why some individuals join gangs in the first place; this implies that such individuals have no family members who may be willing to pay for their legal fees. They end up going to prison anyway and even living a condemned life afterward (Soft White Underbelly and Laita).
Communities also pay the price for gang-related activities in their areas as well. Communities with high gang activity tend to have higher crime rates, mortality rates, lower property values, and underperforming schools. Public facilities in these areas also tend to be rundown, and resources are generally underdeveloped. Few people are willing to invest in such areas due to fear of being attacked, robbed, or their businesses destroyed. These communities, thus, lag in terms of improvement. Gang activities in the US cost the public hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in law enforcement fees. According to the US Department of Justice, these involve the cost of activities inherent with gang cultures such as murder, rapesexual assault, aggravated assault, robbery, arson, household burglaries, theft, and vandalism.
Curbing gang problems in the US and the inherent problems associated with it needs a comprehensive approach involving more brutal consequences in cases of gang-affiliated criminal activities and addressing societal issues that often support the formation of gangs or make joining gang’s criminal gangs attractive to people (Howell, 4). It is often understood that inherent societal obstacles to success, such as lack of employment opportunities or education, often keep people in “survival mode”. Therefore, most people living in poor conditions find joining a gang as a better alternative to suffering in the streets. Most people join gangs as a survival mechanism since, with gangs, they have a group of people they can depend on and can work together to get some money illegally. To solve the problem of gangs in America, underlying issues and obstacles to success have to be addressed. Lack of economic opportunities and financial stability leads people to join gangs since it gives them a sense of belonging, meaning that if more economic opportunities are created, fewer people will feel the need to join gangs. There is a direct link between criminal gangs and the nation’s education opportunity gap, poverty, homelessness, and family breakdowns. These issues tend to perpetuate the problem of gangs; taking ownership and solving these issues potentially reduces the number of people willing to join gangs and associated criminal activities (Howell, 16).
A decision to join a gang does not come abruptly to an individual; there are a series of signs and symptoms that are indicative of attraction towards gang membership or other criminal activities, approaches such as more human services, community wrap-around services, counselors in high schools and churches are uniquely equipped. They can capture young people from schools and neighborhoods before joining gangs (Howell, 8). Intervention mechanisms such as afterschool programs for young people help keep the youth out of the streets, thus reducing their chances of joining gangs. One of the main inhibitors of the problem of gangs in the United States is that the problem is solely left to the mandate of law enforcement alone. The nature of gangs in the country requires a multi-sectoral approach with individuals from different backgrounds such as child services, law enforcement, human services, and elected officials to work together (Howell, 10).
Similarly, one of the main problems that have hindered efforts to deal with gangs in the United States is a public misconception that gangs are too big and dangerous. There is not much that can be done except suppress them by “arresting them and locking them up.” (Katz and Webb, 120). These myths have skewed conversations about gangs and gang culture to focus only on the bad things that gangs often do; however, no one has been able to peel back a layer and ask why people find refuge in gangs and gang-related cultures. 35% of gang members across the entire United States are youths and young people, even for the other 65%, most of them joined gangs when they were relatively young and have since grown into maturity as gang members (Katz and Webb, 198). These youths suffer from community disconnectedness, negative peers, dysfunctional families, substance abuse, lack of meaningful relationships, etc. Reaching out through mentorships, community organization, and advocacy ensures that the fresh supply of gang recruitment is reduced and is a significant first step in controlling gang problems in the country (Katz and Webb, 242).
A solution to American gang and gang culture must begin with solving delinquency before one willfully decides to join a gang. Individuals first portray a series of delinquency behaviors that are signs of engaging in gangs or gang-like activities. Gang involvement happens in 4 main stages that begin with predelinquents, delinquents, gang involvement, and violent criminal activities within the gang (Howell, 14). The progression starts with minor conduct problems and eventually into gang involvement and committing violent crimes within the gang. A multilayered intervention plan and strategies should thus begin with the predelinquents, where more efforts are put in place to make sure that those in the predelinquent stage one do not cross over to the next stage. The primary interventions should target delinquents, secondary interventions should target high-risk individuals, and target suppressions should target severe and chronic offenders (Howell, 16).
Gangs and gang culture is a significant problem in the United States. It is a public threat that gravely impacts individuals, families, communities, and the state. Joining a gang is a recipe for drug and substance abuse, physical violence, arrest, and death at the individual level. This destroys families, rendering them dysfunctional and creating a vicious circle. Similarly, the US government spends hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayers’ money to contain gangs; this money could be used in other areas such as education. On the other hand, curbing gangs and gang culture requires a multilayered approach that targets the underlying factors that often coerce people to join gangs. They should target all stages of gang involvement, beginning from the predelinquency stage to severe and chronic gang offenders. Solving the risk factors that push people to join gangs, strengthening families, addressing poverty and education gaps, and suppressing chronic and brutal gangs through suppression and incarcerations work at different stages of delinquency and should be applied at different stages to control America’s gang problem.
- Bellair, Paul E., and Thomas L. McNulty. 'Gang Membership, Drug Selling, and Violence in Neighborhood Context.' Justice Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 4, 2009, pp. 644-669.
- Howell, James C. Gang Prevention: An Overview of Research and Programs. Juvenile Justice Bulletin. 2010.
- Katz, Charles M., and Vincent J. Webb. Policing Gangs in America. Cambridge UP, 2006.
- Sánchez-Jankowski, Martín. 'Gangs, Culture, and Society in the United States.' Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs and Street Gangs, 2018, pp. 25-43.
- Soft White Underbelly, and M. Laita. 'Ex Gang Member interview-Kevin.' YouTube, 2019, www.youtube.comwatch?v=izsxWtiI5SY.