Juvenile delinquency is an enlightening topic and one that requires much attention. As defined by Thompson & Bynum (2017), “juvenile delinquency is any illegal act that, if committed by an adult, would be a crime” (p. 9). Rather than crime, the act is called a delinquent act when committed by a minor child, usually between the ages of 10 and 17. Over the years, research has shown that many factors influence the engagement of juveniles in delinquent behaviors. One factor that is highly associated with juveniles engaging in multiple delinquent behaviors is gang membership. In this paper, I will thoroughly discuss street gangs as they are related to juvenile delinquency.
Street Gang Defined
“Growing up in an adverse environment or neighborhood with high levels of crime increases the likelihood that a young person will become involved in gang-related criminal activity during adolescence” (McCord, Widom, & Crowell, 2001, p. 89). According to Thompson & Bynum (2017), “a street gang is a group of recurrently associating individuals with identifiable leadership and internal organization. They identify with or claim control over territory, or turf, in a community and engage, either individually or collectively, in violence or other forms of illegal behavior” (p. 296-297). Street gangs can be dominating in size, having hundreds or more members generally aged 12-24. These members are typically linked to a name and other symbols and have some degree of hierarchy. For instance, as reported by Oliver (1995), “sometimes smaller groups called sets or cliques unite under the umbrella of a larger gang, such as the “Crips” or the “Bloods” in Southern California” (p. 25). Street gangs have been around for years, as long as crime itself, evolving from the earliest of times in the United States to present day.
Presence of Gangs Over Time
Though gang related actions and issues didn’t emerge until the early part of the nineteenth century, the history of street gangs in the United States began in the late eighteenth century as the American Revolution ended. The emergence of street gangs was fueled by immigration and poverty, first by a group of Europeans. “Immigrants from Europe began to flock to America seeking a better life” (Oliver, 1995, p. 11). They settled in urban areas of the Northeast region. However, because they had few marketable skills, difficulties in finding work and a place to live became the reality for many. “These newcomers were poor and forced to live in crowded tenement buildings, many without hot water or adequate bathrooms. The opportunity for a good life that they were seeking appeared far from their grasp” (Oliver, 1995, p. 11). As a result of such hard times, crime began to increase in the region.
Overlapping the first group of immigrants, “between 1820 and 1930, some 4.5 million Irish migrated to the United State” (“U.S. Immigration Before 1965”, 2009, para 6). Similarly, this group also largely consisted of low-skilled, low-wage laborers. In fact, their arrival further overwhelmed the housing and welfare capacity and worsened the already poor living conditions. High rates of unemployment, combined with unequal access to public goods, opportunities, and resources, generated social and economic turmoil. Consequently, this gave rise to the “earliest gangs consisting almost entirely of Irishmen” (Thompson & Bynum, 2017, p. 297).
With the flooding of a third major group of immigrants, street gangs further emerged in the Northeast, Midwest, and Western regions of the United States from about 1916 to 1970. “Driven from their homes by unsatisfactory economic opportunities and harsh segregationist laws, more than six million African-Americans migrated northward and westward from the Deep South” (“Great Migration”, 2010, para 1). In addition, “El Paso, Albuquerque, and Los Angeles were populated by an influx of Mexican immigrants along the trail from Mexico to Los Angeles” (Howell & Moore, 2010, p.1). This enormous migration flood fueled the spark of more serious street gangs that reflected the social polarization of different ethnic groups. For instance, “there was a mixture of African-American, Hispanic/Latino (Puerto Rican, Mexican, Dominican Republican, Cuban), Asian (Cambodian, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Samoan, Thais, Vietnamese, and others), and Latin American (Colombian, Ecuadorian, Panamanian, and others) gangs that populated the gang landscape” (Howell & Moore, 2010, p. 2). This new gang culture brought on the onset of juvenile delinquency, pitting youth against each other in battles to dominate changing neighborhoods and establish and maintain their turf and honor.
Over the years, the number of gangs and their members has continued to grow tremendously. According to Frieden (2011), “criminal gang membership increased as much as 40 percent in the United States during the past three years” (para 1). Today, “gangs can be found in every U.S. state and the District of Columbia” (para 13). These gangs pose a great threat to communities considering that “they account for 48% of violence in the United States” and target vulnerable, young juveniles for recruitment (para 8). “To date, there are approximately 24,500 known youth gangs with about 772,500 youth members. That’s about 7% of the teen population in the United States” (Lohmann, 2010, para 2). Once these teens are recruited in a gang, they are exposed to a life of delinquency. Nevertheless, it is possible to protect young people from gangs and prevent juvenile delinquency by first understanding what leads teens to joining gangs.
The stage of adolescence is a critical stage as it is the transitional period from childhood to adulthood. During this period, many young people experience developmental changes and face tough choices regarding school, sexuality, drugs and alcohol, and social life. In fact, peer groups tend to naturally increase in importance as teens search to find their independence and identity. This vulnerability is what makes young people the perfect targets for gangs. “Gangs like to target young vulnerable teens who are trying to fit in and be accepted. In fact, the most popular time for gang recruitment is during middle school. Some reports show that children as young as 10 are even joining gangs” (Lohmann, 2010, para 3).
Noteworthy, adolescents join gangs for many different reasons. According to Parks (2011), “one of the most common reasons young people give for joining gangs is the desire to belong to a family-like group in the absence of that sort of closeness at home” (p. 37). In fact, adolescents that come from broken families and households are more likely to join gangs at a young age. They are “lured into the gang life because it provides structure that they have not found at home” (Oliver, 1995, p. 53). Forced to look for love and attention elsewhere, these adolescents often look up to older gang members and find a sense of purpose and safety by being a member of the group. “Gangs tap into these insecurities by promising the teen a family that will forever take care of them” (Lohmann, 2010, para 5).
Unfortunately, “family traditions also lead some youth to join a gang, especially in neighborhoods where there are generational gang-groups that might include uncles, grandfathers, fathers, and cousins. In these families, joining a gang is looked upon with pride” (Oliver, 1995, p. 59). “In rare instances, a new member may be blessed in not having to prove his or her worth because a brother or sister is already a member of the gang” (Edgar, 2004, p. 97). Naturally, therefore, this violent lifestyle is hard to escape for youth that are born into the game. In fact, “kids who grow up with gang parents are likely to become bullies at a young age” (Belenkaya, 2008, para 24).
Moreover, some youth join gangs to make money by engaging in illegal activities, such as dealing drugs, stealing, selling stolen goods, and even trading weapons. Others join simply for the thrill or rush of breaking the law and defying authority. Aside from personal reasons for joining a gang, modern-day media presentation makes the gang culture seem “cool” and very appealing to youth as well. In fact, the “hip” lifestyle and its sensational portrayal in movies, music, and clothing merchandizing have served to diffuse the street gang culture with the general youth subculture. With so many influences and pressures, it is undeniably easy for youth to be misled into being initiated into a gang.
Gang leaders have the authority to decide which youth will join and who will not, especially when the gang is well established in the neighborhood. Once the opportunity to join a gang has been presented and taken, normally the next turning point is the official formalization of gang membership through a rite of passage. Like many other social groups with initiation processes, gangs use the initiation rite as a means of determining if the young inductee is mentally and physically strong enough to be worthy of membership. In other words, they want members who have “heart” and who will not run at the first sign of trouble. The initiation process assures the transmission of a gang’s purpose and meaning. It also reminds active members of their earlier status and gives new, young members something in common with other gang members.
In fact, some new members are willing to do almost anything to be considered a formal or “solid member”. Commonly, initiates are involved in a violent initiation process, which is known as an “act of love”. As Edgar (2004) stated, “In many instances, the inductee is beat-in by gang members using baseball bats or brass knuckles” (p.97). “The beat-in duration is approximately 30 seconds in length” (Vigil, 1996). This type of initiation aims to test how well the newcomer will be able to fight to maintain the gang’s reputation and territory. Having good fighters among a gang’s members can reduce significantly the numbers of fights a gang would need to be involved in.
Although violence in gang initiation is often directed at new members, the process can vary from gang to gang. For instance, some initiates may have the choice of being beaten in or “going on a mission”. This means that the initiate has to engage in an act of violence, usually against rival gang members on rival turf. For instance, initiates can be asked to commit an armed robbery, an assault, to transport drugs, or even to write gang graffiti on enemy turf. “More radical forms of gang initiations may involve drive-by shootings or rape” (Edgar, 2004, p. 97). Consequently, such violent acts have many negative implications on the health and welfare of juveniles, as well as that of his or her family, peers, and community.
The numerous implications stemming from youth gang involvement can have varying degrees of short and long-term negative outcomes. For instance, “youth who become involved in gangs face the increased risk of quitting school, drug abuse, receiving illegal income, teen parenthood, and juvenile incarceration” (Howell, 2006). Furthermore, young gang members experience an increased likelihood of economic hardship and family problems in adulthood. Aside from the individual, gangs also adversely affect communities. Gang activities and the gang power control war result in dozens of death per year, as well as hundreds of injuries and long term disabilities. According to McDaniel (2012) “communities with gang activity are disproportionately affected by theft, negative economic impact, vandalism, assault, gun violence, illegal drug trade, and homicide”. As a result, community residents often live in fear that they, their families, schools, or businesses will become victims of theft or violence. This chronic stress often leads to mental health problems as well as chronic disease.
Moreover, youth gang involvement costs local, state, and federal governments a substantial amount of money in response, incarceration, and rehabilitation efforts. “It has been estimated that overall crime in the United States costs taxpayers $655 billion annually with a substantial amount of this crime attributed to gang activity” (Christeson & Newman, 2004). The presence of youth gangs at school can also be very disruptive to the school environment considering that gangs create fear among students and increase the level of violence in schools. As apparent, the impact of youth gangs is felt in many ways. Still, there are steps that can be taken in order to prevent youth from joining gangs, which includes being aware of warning signs and risky behavior.
Due to the initiation process, gang membership does not happen overnight. It is a gradual process, which allows for time to notice warning signs of gang involvement. The most common signs include: change in clothing and music, gang symbols or writing on belongings, change in friends, withdrawing from family, declining performance in school, increased trouble at school, police encounters, and large sums of money. Other signs include breaking curfew and using unusual hand signals to communicate with friends. According to Oliver (1995), “wannabees, youth who adopt the styles and languages of a gang to indicate their interest in joining, are likely candidates” (p. 63). In addition, having unexplainable physical injuries and drug use can also point to gang involvement. However, because some of these warning signs are also common among youth not involved in gangs, such as clothing and musical preference, parents, educators, and law enforcers should look for multiple signs to indicate possible gang involvement. In the event that a youth is suspected of gang involvement, help and intervention should be requested early.
Prevention and Intervention
If we want to save our youth from gangs, we must develop and implement early prevention strategies that reach high-risk youth, families, and schools. To do so, communities must first assess their gang problem and use that assessment to craft a continuum of responses that are communitywide in scope. These responses should involve community representatives – law enforcement, school faculty, youth, parents, community leaders, probation officers, former gang members, grass root organizations, and local government – in planning and delivering prevention and intervention programs and employ integrated outreach and support services. Communities that organize and mobilize themselves using a data-driven strategy can direct their resources toward effectively preventing gang formation and its associated criminal activity.
Notably, there are multiple strategies for working with delinquent youth in early prevention of gang joining. For example, it is possible to focus at the individual level on at-risk children. Other prevention strategies work at the family, school, or community levels to reduce risk and enhance protective influences. At the same time, communities must provide intervention strategies for youth who are already actively in gangs, specifically targeting areas where gang problems are serious and more prominent. Examples of effective intervention strategies are drug and alcohol treatment, counseling, job training and placement, transportation assistance, tattoo removal, legal assistance, transitional services, and mentoring.
Lastly, law enforcement plays a key role in suppression. Some examples of successful suppression strategies include: making informal contacts with targeted youth and their families; directing enforcement to the times, places, and events in which data indicates that gangs are active; executing patrols of locations where gang members congregate; and conducting community forums to address gang incidents. It is also recommended that communities be aware of the influence of incarcerated gang members returning to the community and develop strategies to address these individuals. For instance, gang suppression efforts should strive to target and rehabilitate the most violent gangs and older, criminally active members. Although there is no quick fix, once communities make a commitment to solving gang problems, they are in an excellent position to undertake strategic planning in preventing gang development and overcoming established gangs.
The influence of gang membership on delinquency and violence is long lasting and significant. Consequences of gang involvement and their burden on youth in our communities are detrimental – dropping out of school, drug and alcohol abuse, violent crimes, and juvenile conviction. Prevention, intervention, and suppression efforts are necessary in order to solve the prevalent youth gang problem in the United States. However, to achieve a lasting reduction in youth gang activity, parents, educators, community leaders, and police officers must engage in a new way of thinking about the relationship between street gangs and juvenile delinquency. Only then can we better understand and prevent the cascading impact of gangs on youth, families, neighborhoods, and society.