Stability and support from others are essential factors desired by most individuals. At times people are unable to attain these traits through conventional means, such as parents and family. Often these individuals begin to conform to delinquent groups and in many cases join gangs in order to satisfy their lacking emotions. Gangs serve as a bridge between adolescence and adulthood, when adult control and security is lacking. Norms are created by gangs, which are then accepted by group members, regardless of proper convention. The life accepted by gang members is one in which morality is no longer the source of proper decision making, and gang principals become the basis of judgment. In a child’s early life, the parents are often the primary source of influence and attention. However, children between the ages of eight and fourteen seek out stable peer groups, both the number and variety of friendships increase as the children go through adolescence (Rathus 1988). A desire for acceptance by formed “cliques” or small groups of friends who share intimate knowledge and confidences becomes priority. In some instances, the peer group provides the social and emotional basis for antisocial activity, this transforms into a gang. Gangs are groups of youths who engage in delinquent behavior; gang delinquency involves long-lived institutions that have distinct structure and organization. These groups include identifiable leadership, division of labor, rules, rituals, and possessions. Members have self-recognition of their gang status and use special vocabulary, clothing, signs, colors, and graffiti to identify themselves. Gang members set themselves apart from the community and are viewed as a separate entity by others. A commitment to criminal activity is expected, although even the most criminal gang members spend the bulk of their time in noncriminal activities (Warr 1993). Gangs are sometimes viewed as uniquely American, but gangs have also been reported in several other nations. The first mention of gangs in America occurred in the late 1780’s when prison reformers noted the presence of gangs on Philadelphia street corners. By the1820’s, New York’s Five Point districts were full of gangs with colorful names such as Roach Guards and Dead Rabbits. In the 1950’s and early 1960’s, the threat of gangs and gang violence became evident to the public; newspapers and movies featured stories of the gangs. By the mid-1960s however, the gang danger seemed to have disappeared, some experts attribute the decline of gang activity due to successful community-based programs (Spergel 1995). Unfortunately interest in the gang activity began again in the early 1970s. One of the largest gangs still today, the Crips, was created in 1969 in Los Angeles, California by teens Raymond Washington and Stanley, “Tookie” Williams. Today there are an estimated, 760,000 gang members, and 24,000 gangs active in more than 2,900 jurisdictions around the United States. Traditionally, gangs have operated in large urban areas experiencing rapid population change. In these transitional neighborhoods, diverse ethnic and racial groups find themselves in competition with one another. Inter-gang conflict and homicide rates are high in these areas, which house the urban “underclass”. These communities eventually evolve into permanently disorganized neighborhoods, where the social control mechanisms have broken down. The population shift slows down in these cities, permitting patterns of delinquent behavior and traditions to develop over a number of years. Even though some people think of gangs as solely an urban phenomenon, an estimated fifteen thousand gangs with three hundred members are located in small cities, suburban counties, and even rural areas (Spergel). The growth of gangs in suburban and rural areas has been attributed to a restructuring of the population. There has been a massive movement of people out of the central city to outlying communities and suburbs causing a rise in the number of gang influence. Gang formation involves a sense of territoriality. Most gang members live close to one another, and their sense of belonging extends only to their small area of the city. At first, a gang may form when members of an ethnic minority join together for self-preservation. As the group gains domination over an area, it may view the area as its own turf, which needs to be “defended” by “outsiders”. Once formed, gangs grow when youths who admire the older gang members “apply” and are accepted for membership. At times the new member will be given a special identity that reflects their status. Those who assume leadership roles have earned their position by demonstrating fighting skills, verbal quickness, or athletic distinction. They emphasize that leadership which is held by one person and varies with particular activities, such as fighting, sex, or negotiations. Most organized gangs have a clear chain of command and leaders who are in control manage members’ behavior. This begins to play the “stability” role for the younger individuals of the gang, an asset they have lacked. Regardless of the delinquent and or criminal acts the associates commit, the members of the gang will undoubtedly support their actions. Gang criminality has many patterns, some gangs specialize in drug dealing, but not all gangs are major participants in drug trafficking. Other gangs engage in a wide variety of criminal activity, ranging from felony assaults to drug dealing. Gang members are most commonly involved in crimes such as, larceny/theft, aggravated assault, burglary, and street drug sales to accumulate profits for the gang. Research indicates that gang violence is impulsive and usually involves defense of the gang and gang members’ reputations (Curry 1992). Violence is a core fact of gang formation and life. Gang members feel threatened by other gangs and are cautious when individuals from “outside” the gang are present on their territory. After the strenuous initiation ceremonies, once a member is part of a gang, their mentality becomes the gang is their family, and they most protect their family. Many gangs put new members through hazing processes to make sure they have the “heart”, a feature similar to tribal rites. In tribal societies, initiation into a cult is viewed as the death of childhood. In comparison to these tribes, boys in lower-class urban areas desire to join the gang and “start life”. Membership in a gang essentially means, “The youth gives up his life as a child and assumes a new way of life”(Spergel). It is unfortunate that many youth feel that they must reject the life they were given, in order to join a gang and have their needs met. Research has shown that destructive sociocultural forces in poor inner-city areas are the major cause of gang formation along with unstable homes. Often the areas with the lowest income and the largest population have the highest number of violent gangs, however times of initiation vary. Individuals are encouraged to join gangs during periods of social, economic, and cultural turmoil. Immigration or rapidly expanding populations can create fragmented communities and gang problems. On an individual level, gang membership has appeal to adolescents who are alienated from both their families as well as the mainstream society. It is not surprising that children who have had problems with the law and suffer juvenile justice processing are more likely to join gangs than other children, however these are not the only reasons for gang involvement. The subject of strain can sometimes serve as a reason for individuals to join a gang. Most people in the United States desire wealth, material possessions, power, prestige, and other life comforts. Members of the lower class are unable to achieve these symbols of success through conventional means. Consequently lower class citizens feel anger, frustration, and resentment which is referred to as strain. Lower class individuals then choose a life of achieving success through theft, violence, drug trafficking, and gang involvement. Crime then becomes a function of the conflict between the goals people have and the means they can use to legally obtain them.
Some youths may make a rational choice to join a gang. Members of the underclass turn to gangs as a method of obtaining desired goods and services, either directly through theft and extortion, or indirectly, through drug dealing. In some cases, joining a gang can be viewed as an “employment decision” to benefit the member. In a study about the Diamonds, a Latino gang in Chicago, conducted by Felix Padilla it was found that the decision to join the gang was made after an assessment of legitimate opportunities. The Diamonds made collective business decisions, and individuals who made their own deals were penalized. The gang maintained a distinct structure and carried out other functions similar to those of legitimate enterprises (Padilla 1997).
According to Spergel, some adolescents choose to join gangs from a “rational calculation” to achieve safety. Youths who are new to a community believe they will be harassed or attacked if they remain “unaffiliated”. Motivation may have its roots in inter-race or inter-ethnic rivalry. Youths who live in an area dominated by a different racial or ethnic group may be persuaded that gang membership is a means of protection. On the other hand, some individuals join gangs simply to have “fun”. They enjoy hanging out with others like themselves and want to get involved in exciting experiences. There has been evidence that youths learn pro-gang attitudes from their peers, and that these attitudes direct them to join gangs. Some experts suggest that youths join gangs in an effort to obtain a family-like atmosphere. Many gang members report that they have limited contact with their parents, many of whom are unemployed and have substance abuse problems.
The question of morality and judgment is often discussed when focusing on gang membership and affiliation. This is often a difficult topic to argue because conventional norms are not always present in areas with a high number of gang membership. The culture of poverty theory is put into perspective, this theory states that people in lower classes of society form a separate culture with its own values and norms. These principles are in conflict with the role demands of conventional society. Apathy, helplessness, and mistrust towards social institutions mark the culture of poverty. The mistrust towards schools, government, and the police prevents members of the lower class from taking advantage of the positive opportunities that may be available to them.
The new “norms” that are established in these areas create the mindset that committing delinquent acts, and participating in gang violence is acceptable. As stated in the New York Times Magazine, The Moral Instinct, “It’s not just the content of our moral judgments that is often questioned, but the way we arrive at them” (Pinker 2008). Due to the injustices clearly present in today’s society concerning lower class areas, individuals develop their morals based upon the inequality at hand. One who has experienced prejudice their whole life is almost expected to turn away from present social institutions, and create their own ethics that are suitable to their lifestyle.
With the rise in gang affiliation and membership in the United State, numerous community-level programs have been designed to limit gang activity. Some employ recreation areas open in the evening hours that provide supervised activities. In some areas, citywide coordinating groups help orient gang-control efforts. In Los Angeles County, the Gang Alternative Prevention Program (GAPP) provides prevention services to juveniles before they become fixed in gangs. These programs include individual and group counseling, bicultural and bilingual services to adolescents and their parents, and special programs, such as tutoring, parent training, job development, and recreational and educational experiences (Thornberry 1993).
Another helpful approach has been to involve schools in gang-control programs. Some invite law enforcement agents to lecture students on the dangers of gang involvement and teach them gang resistance techniques. Others provide resources that can help parents prevent their children from joining gangs, or to get them out of already being involved in a gang. Although social solutions to the gang problem are difficult, evidence shows that gang involvement is a socio-ecological phenomenon and must be treated as such (Thornberry). Programs that enhance the lives of adolescents are the key to reducing gang delinquency.
The unfortunate rise of gang interaction enables individuals of society to acknowledge the need for stability and security in the home. Individuals involved in gangs lack the support and conventional values required for a functional society. With the presence of conservative influences, society may encompass less delinquent and violent acts committed by gang members and affiliates.
Curry, D., “Gang Involvement and Delinquency”, Journal of Research in Crime and
Delinquency 29:273-291 (1992).
Padilla, F., “Youth Gang Drug Trafficking and Homicide”, Juvenile Justice Journal
Pinker, S. (2008). The Moral Instinct. The New York Times Magazine. Rathus, S., Understanding Child Development (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1988), p. 462. Spergel, I., The Youth Gang Problem: A Community Approach (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995). Thornberry, T., “The Role of Juvenile Gangs in Facilitating Delinquent Behavior”, Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 30: 55-57 (1993). Warr, M., “Age, Peers, and Delinquency”, Criminology 31:17-18 (1993).