Understanding and Responding to Youth Gangs: A Juvenile Corrections Approach

By Jackson, Lonnie | Corrections Today, August 1999 | Go to article overview

Understanding and Responding to Youth Gangs: A Juvenile Corrections Approach


Jackson, Lonnie, Corrections Today


During the past two decades, the United States has seen the youth gang problem grow at an alarming rate. According to the National Youth Gang Center, the number of cities with youth gang problems has increased from an estimated 286 with more than 2,000 gangs and nearly 100,000 gang members in 1980 to about 2,000 cities with more than 25,000 gangs and 650,000 members in 1995. Youth gangs are present and active in nearly every state, as well as in Puerto Rico and other territories. Few large cities are gang-free and even many cities and towns with populations of less than 25,000 are reporting gang problems. Thus, the issue of youth gangs is now affecting new localities, such as small towns and rural areas.

THE STATISTICS

According to a national law enforcement study conducted in 1996 by G.D. Curry for the National Youth Gang Center, the ethnicity of gang members is estimated at 48 percent African-American; 43 percent Hispanic; 5 percent Caucasian; and 4 percent Asian. Researchers Bursick and Grasmick point out that despite the high percentage of minority group members, African-Americans and Hispanics have no special predispositions to gang membership. Rather, they simply are overrepresented in areas likely to lead to gang activity. Patterns of criminality and gang-related activities also vary with ethnicity.

Irving A. Spergel of the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration notes that African-American gangs, are generally more involved in drug trafficking; Hispanic gangs, in turf-related violence; and Asian and Caucasian gangs in property crimes. The age range for youth gang members also has expanded, spanning from 12 to 21. The definition of a youth gang member varies from one jurisdiction to the next. The Portland Police Bureau's pamphlet, Gangs/Pandillas, defines a gang as "a group of people who interact among themselves to the exclusion of other groups, have a group name, claim a neighborhood or territory and engage in criminal or anti-social behavior on a regular basis." Gang members commit violent crimes at a rate three times that of nongang delinquents. And gang-involved youths are more frequently victimized by violent crime than the rest of the general population.

Reasons why youths become gang members include: lack of positive role models; low self-esteem; physical safety/security; peer relations; sense of identity; increased status; opportunities for excitement; and making fast money, especially by selling drugs. The explosion of youth gangs and gang-related crime has had a tremendous impact on juvenile correctional facilities. Juvenile justice officials are confronted with increasing numbers of gang-involved youths being committed to their facilities. Gang members represent serious concerns to juvenile correctional facilities, particularly in the areas of safety and security. Juvenile correctional management and staff must cope with developing suppression strategies for gang behavior and activity within their facilities. Likewise, juvenile corrections professionals who work in institutions or facilities housing gang-involved youths must pro-actively develop and refine programs that address gang involvement as a treatment issue and tailor treatment to get through the mind-set and defenses of urbanized, hard-core, streetwise youths. Otherwise, we will have perpetual aimlessness and recidivism among the gang-affiliated population.

THE NEED FOR EARLY PREVENTION

Community program directors, educators and other knowledgeable persons need to recognize the attraction that gangs have for children who fit the criteria of high-risk factors of gang involvement. If we address these issues with children who fit the profile of someone likely to be attracted to gangs before

they join one, we will make great steps toward eliminating gangs altogether.

There is a tremendous need for prevention programs. To make them available, we need the cooperation of corrections professionals, educators, families and the community. …

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