Youth gangs were once present in just a few major metropolitan areas, but during the last 25 years, they have spread rapidly throughout the United States. According to Criminology & Public Policy, gang activity was recently found in 85% of large cities, 50% of suburban counties, 32% of smaller cities, and 15% of rural counties. “The number of gangs, gang members, and gang‐related homicides are on the rise when compared with the previous 5‐year average, and the problem of street gangs now reaches into all corners of American society,” the authors added.

Unfortunately, the topic of youth gangs consists of several problems. This article explores some of those issues and examines how law enforcement agencies and professionals can help with gang prevention.

Problems Caused by Youth Gangs

There are numerous consequences that result from involvement in youth gangs, both in the short- and long-term. According to youth.gov, a federal government website from the Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs, those consequences span an increased risk of:

  • Criminal activity, often leading to conviction and incarceration
  • Dropping out of school
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Family problems
  • Teen parenthood
  • Unemployment that creates economic hardship, which can continue into adulthood
  • Victimization

Criminal Activity and Violence

The close link between gangs and criminal activity is practically self-evident. The following sections examine the different types of criminal activity that youth gangs are associated with, including a close look at perhaps the most significant type: violence.

Violence

In “The Wiley Handbook of Violence and Aggression,” Dena Carson and Finn-Aage Esbensen described the relationship between gangs and violence as robust and well-documented in literature. One quick illustration of that comes from the U.S. National Youth Gang Survey. The survey found, in 2012, gangs accounted for 16% of all homicides in the United States but only made up less than 1% of the population.

Violence occurs at the group-level and individual-level of gangs. Individual gang members are more violent than their non-gang peers. That finding is true not only during gang tenure, but prior to and following that period.

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Of course, the main focus is the amount of crime that youth gangs are responsible for. According to Chris Melde in “The Handbook of Measurement Issues in Criminology and Criminal Justice,” police, policymakers, the media, and researchers have been preoccupied with issues like that for the last three decades. He outlined a few specific studies that give a clear picture to the considerable link between gang violence and crime in general.

  • One three-city study found that gang members accounted for two-thirds of all felony assaults, robberies, and thefts reported across the sample. However, those members accounted for just 23% of the sample.
  • Thirty percent of individuals in another study were members of a gang by the end of high school. Yet, they accounted for 86% of all violent acts committed, as well as for 70% of all drug sales.
  • Other studies of youth gang members in major metropolitan cities found similarly disproportionate rates of offending.

The topic of violence and young gang members is far-reaching, impacting individual, peer, family, and community domains. This look at youth gangs can’t examine all of those implications, but a strong example to illustrate the deep nature of the subject is available with school violence. “Studies conducted nearly 20 years ago offer empirical evidence implying that gangs may possible be the chief explanation for the upswing in school violence within particular schools, and that in those schools, victimization almost doubles if gangs are in the adjacent community,” according to authors in “The Wiley Handbook on Violence in Education.” 

Other Criminal Activity

Young gang members are also more likely to commit a number of other crimes. As said in a paper published by Criminology, “Perhaps no social group is more criminogenic than the youth gang.”

One major link for the increase of criminal activity in gang members is guns. According to Arna Carlock and Alan Lizotte in “The Handbook of Gangs,” since gangs adopted the widespread use of firearms, youths are now more likely to sell drugs and engage in violence. Decades ago, crimes became more serious when gangs began adopting guns as an integral part of the lifestyle. Criminal activity is more likely not only when youths participate in gangs, but also when they carry guns.

Consequences into Adulthood

The short-term consequences of gang involvement for individuals and the resulting community are well-known. However, as authors in Criminology noted, little attention has been given to how youth gangs can impact life and criminal behavior into adulthood.

As might be expected, examining those effects found a negative relationship between gang involvement in adolescence and the resulting effects on individuals’ life chances. “The longer the adolescent stayed in the gang, the more disruption he or she experienced during emerging adulthood and in adulthood itself,” the study found. “Gang involvement had significant indirect pathways to these adult outcomes, which are consistent with the life‐course perspective.”

Gang members were more likely to fail at graduating high school, father a child as a teenager, leave home before finishing high school, and engage in early cohabitation. They were also more likely to continue in participation of street crime and get arrested. Overall, deciding to join a gang decreases a person’s life chances by involving problematic transitions from adolescence to early adulthood, leading to difficult situations that can undermine family and economic aspects of life. That contributes to continued contact with criminal activities and experiences in the criminal justice system.

How Law Enforcement Can Take Part in Gang Prevention

Gang involvement can lead to higher crime rates and increase young individuals’ short- and long-term negative outcomes. Due to those strong and common outcomes, gang prevention should be a focus.

Law enforcement professionals are in a unique position to identify youth who are at risk of joining gangs, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Police are active in places where adults who take part of gang prevention activities are not. That presence and knowledge is invaluable in helping youth avoid gangs and getting involved in alternatives to gangs.

Police officers and agencies can play a major role in several aspects of gang prevention. The report discussed how the primary problem-solving model used by law enforcement, SARA — Scanning, Analysis, Response, and Assessment — is similar to the public health prevention model. As a result, law enforcement professionals can use similar data-driven components to build initiatives and partnerships effective for gang prevention. Making gang prevention more of an emphasis in the community, and placing officers in an active, visible role, can build trust and lead to results. If you’d like to become a criminal justice leader and play a larger role in issues like gang prevention, earning your Master of Criminal Justice can help. The online criminal justice degree from St. Ambrose University features expert faculty who have deep experience in the field. The fully online program can be completed in as little as one year.