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The problems posed by gangs in many communities have received increasing attention in the United States and, more recently, in some European nations as well. What is called delinquent behavior when the gang member is a minor and criminal behavior when the gang member is an adult has been the subject of more scholarly and public attention during the past few decades. According to the most recent National Youth Gang Center (NYGC) survey of law enforcement agencies, 21,500 gangs with 731,500 members have been officially reported in the United States. Since the NYGC surveys began in 1996, every city whose population exceeded 250,000 has reported the presence of gangs. A number of cross-sectional and longitudinal studies have demonstrated that membership in a gang is associated with a significant enhancement effect— that is, belonging to a gang enhances the chances that an individual will commit delinquent or criminal offenses, including serious, violent offenses, and that the individual will engage in more delinquent or criminal behavior while in the gang than either before joining the gang or after leaving the gang.
In analyzing gang-related violent crime, it is important to define that term. Two major definitions are employed by law enforcement agencies in classifying crimes that they believe may be gang related. The first, utilized by more than half of all law enforcement agencies, defines gang-related crime as crime that involves a gang member as a perpetrator or as a victim. The second, utilized by about one third of all law enforcement agencies, is a more restrictive definition that requires that the crime be determined to be gang motivated (committed for the purpose of furthering the gang’s interests and activities). If such motivation can be proved, the convicted offender may be subject to “sentence enhancements” (additional time to be served), since many states have integrated these “add-on” sentences in their sentencing statutes with the intention of deterring gang-motivated criminal behavior. Using the more restrictive “gang-motivated” definition significantly reduces the number of crimes that are classified as gang related.
One important, although not sufficient, indicator of gang violence is gang-related homicides. Although homicide data are generally accurately reported, determining whether they are gang related depends on many factors. It is thought that the number of gang-related homicides is likely to be underestimated. Nonetheless, in a recent year, more than 1,300 homicides committed in 132 U.S. cities with populations of at least 100,000 were classified as gang related, in that they involved a gang member. The two cities with the most chronic gang problems, Los Angeles and Chicago, accounted for more than half of those homicides. Also, about one in every five homicides committed in those cities involved a gang member, and they were most likely to occur in areas with greater popula-tions, chronic gang presence, and a larger number of gang members. Major factors that contribute to these gang-related homicides and other gang-related violent crime include the increasing access to and use of highly lethal weapons by gang members, along with the retaliation and status concerns of gang members.
Popular perceptions notwithstanding, research consistently shows that only a small percentage of gang-related crime is violent in nature, most gang members’ behavior is neither violent nor related to drug sales, and most violent criminals are not gang members. For example, homicides generally constitute less than 5% of all serious gang-related offenses in Los Angeles and less than 1% of all gang-related offenses in that city, which has one of the most chronic gang problems in the United States. Furthermore, during the late 1990s (as opposed to the pre-ceding decade), juvenile arrests for violent felony offenses declined by 34%, while reports of gang membership were up significantly. Such divergence between the reported growth of gangs and the concomitant decline in juvenile felony arrests provides further evidence against the popular assumption of an automatic connection between gangs and serious crime.
Another popular assumption—that drug trafficking-related violence generally involves gang members—is also not borne out by research. Drug selling and violence are not causally related within gangs and, historically, gang-related violence preceded the more recent advent of drug sales as a significant source of income for gang members. Moreover, recent fears about large increases in violence by female gangs have not been borne out by empirical research. Females, both those in gangs and those not in gangs, are generally less violent than are males, although research does show that female gang members are more violent than those who are not in gangs.
Most gang members’ behavior, including their criminal behavior, is in fact quite diverse. This has been termed cafeteria-style criminal/delinquent behavior. Nonetheless, the stereotype of the “violent gang” is often perpetuated by inaccurate media portrayals. When violent crime is gang related, it is most often gang member violence, rather than an organized, collective gang activity. Occasionally, violent conflict does take place between rival gangs and can involve many individuals at the same time. Sometimes, the level of violence to which a gang member is exposed can even be a catalyst that precipitates his or her leaving the gang. While popular opinion holds that one cannot ever leave the gang, research shows that although this can be a challenging process, it can and does occur successfully and exposure to violence is often cited as a significant factor influencing the decision to leave the gang.
Finally, a major factor that is currently contributing to gang-related violence in U.S. communities—and is likely to worsen—is the return of gang members from prison to the communities from which they came. In the most recent National Youth Gang Center Survey, 63% of jurisdictions reported that they had experienced the return of gang members from confinement and two thirds of those jurisdictions indicated that those gang members were significantly involved in violent crime. The challenge of “prisoner reentry” is a major one, with more than half a million ex-prisoners—many of whom are gang members—returning to society each year, mostly without having benefited from any significant rehabilitation services. Gang affiliation in prison has an independent effect on prison violence, and the connection that exists between gang members in prison and those in the community has been well documented. The “revolving door” of conviction, incarceration, release, rearrest, and reincarceration provides a steady and fresh supply of experienced gang members that exacerbates efforts to control gang-related crime and violence in the community, and incidents that occur in either the prison or the community can have rapid and serious repercussions in the other location due to the close ties that exist between gang members inside and those outside the prison walls.
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