Juvenile and Youth Gangs
Gangs And Crime
A universal finding of research has been that gang members participate in a greater number of delinquent and criminal acts than youths who are not involved in gangs. While gang members are involved in significantly more delinquency than nonmembers, not all delinquency by gang members is gang-related. Klein observed that gang members engage in "cafeteria style" delinquency. That is, individual members seldom specialize in a single kind of delinquency. Still, gang-related delinquency is usually more violent than nongang-related delinquency. And there has been considerable variation across time, communities, and gangs in the scope and nature of gang-related crimes and delinquency.
Surveys of populations of at-risk youth have repeatedly revealed a relationship between gang membership and delinquency. Jeffrey Fagan interviewed high school students and dropouts in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Diego and concluded that gang members committed more delinquent acts than did nongang members, as well as more serious offenses. Finn-Aage Esbensen and David Huizinga used a longitudinal survey of an at-risk youth population in Denver to show that gang members reported two to three times as much delinquency as nongang members. From longitudinal survey results on a representative sample of Rochester, New York, youth, Terrence Thornberry and his colleagues found that gang-involved youths were significantly more likely to report involvement in violence and other delinquency. By following youths over time, the Rochester study showed gang involvement to be a transitional process, with delinquent activity increasing during gang involvement and declining afterward. Both the Denver and Rochester research concluded that crime and delinquency increased while individuals were members of a gang, and were lower before membership and after membership; these results underscore the role of gang membership in enhancing involvement in crime and delinquency.
Analyses of local law enforcement data have also provided much of what we know about gang-related crime and delinquency. Maxson and her colleagues used Los Angeles Police and Sheriff's Department records to document differences between gang and nongang homicides. Gang homicides were more likely to involve minority males, automobiles, take place in public places, involve the use of firearm, and include a greater number of participants. Gang homicides tended to involve perpetrators and victims with no prior personal relationship. Gang homicide perpetrators and victims were significantly younger than their counterparts involved in nongang homicides, but they were older than the typical youth gang member. Curry and Irving Spergal found that community-level variables, particularly ethnic composition and poverty, were significantly related to differences in gang-related homicide rates in Chicago across community areas and time. In another study of Chicago Police Department records, Richard and Carolyn Block demonstrated that (1) gang violence was more likely to be turf-related than drug-related; (2) patterns of violence of the four largest established street gangs and smaller less established gangs were different; and (3) guns were the lethal weapons in practically all Chicago gang-related homicides between 1987 and 1990.
For Thrasher, observing Chicago gangs in the early twentieth century, gang involvement in serious delinquency and crime was the culmination of a gang's evolution from a spontaneous "play group" to a "conflict-based" group. Gangs that became cohesive and better organized were those that survived increasing levels of conflict with other gangs and ultimately legitimate community institutions, in particular the police. Conducting research in Chicago decades later, James Short and Fred Strodtbeck emphasized the importance of the gang as a unit of analysis. Two concepts central to their analysis of gangs as groups were collective perceptions of threat and status. The importance of group factors in gang delinquency was also supported by the research of Klein among Los Angles gangs. For Klein, the key to reducing gang delinquency was helping gang members develop as individuals separate from the group context. In their field study of gang crime in St. Louis, Scott Decker and Barrik Van Winkle described how gang structures and processes can combine local neighborhood dynamics and national-level diffusion of gang cultures. Their findings supported Klein's emphasis on the collective nature of violence and Short and Strodtbeck's focus on the collective nature of threat and status in making violence an ever-present feature of gang life. In one analysis, Decker described gang violence as a form of contagion in which the community and group dynamics produced cyclic levels of gang violence. The reciprocal nature of gang violence accounted, in part, for how gangs form initially, grow in size, and vary in cohesion among members.
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