Gangs and the response to gangs by other segments of society are two sides of the same coin. Frederic Thrasher (1927, 26, 46), who studied 1,313 gangs in Chicago in the early 1900s, wrote that gangs are “formed spontaneously” but become “integrated through conflict.” For Thrasher, a pre-gang group does not “become a gang . . . until it begins to excite disapproval and opposition, and thus it acquires a more definite group-consciousness.” The most important conflicts in the strengthening of gangs include other gangs, schools, and law enforcement.

Though gangs are organizations, what we know about them has come from studying individual gang members or community reactions to gang problems. Hence, studies of gangs have historically included both interviews and observational studies of limited samples of gang members from specific geographic areas, or analyses of official records compiled through the institutionalized processes of response. Although there has sometimes been antipathy between the two kinds of researchers, the findings of both are necessary for the widest possible understanding of gang phenomena.

Participant observation and interviews are more likely to capture the totality of behavior engaged in by some gang members on a day-to-day basis. Analysis of official records, while limited to the fraction of gang activity that is criminal in nature, makes it possible to make comparisons and study variations in gang crime and official reaction to it across different communities and points in time. The importance of such comparisons is substantiated by the conclusions of all researchers that gangs vary greatly over both space and time. Studies using both self-report and official records information on populations of at-risk juveniles have found substantial overlap and agreement between the two sources (Curry 2000; Curry, Decker, and Egley 2002).

What Are Gangs?

As in most social science research, individual researchers lay out their definition of what constitutes a gang in the context of their particular study. Differences in defining gangs occur among researchers as well as between researchers and criminal justice agencies. The kinds of analysis problems to which this process of multiple operational definitions can lead are reflected in a study by Maxson and Klein (1990), which showed that if the Chicago definition of a gang-related crime were applied to the gang-related homicides for Los Angeles, Los Angeles would have half as many gang-related homicides.

Another factor in defining gangs is that, for most people, gangs are associated with some preconceived images. This is the result of the degree to which news and the entertainment media have seized on the gang as a subject for eliciting interest and emotion. West Side Story, a relatively contemporary retelling of Romeo and Juliet, required gangs to be conflict-based, more or less close-knit, social entities so as to fit its central plot vehicle. More recent movies such as Colors portray gangs immersed in violence and other criminal behavior. Research has shown that neither of these images is completely accurate.

What Is the Magnitude of Gang Crime Problems?

Much of the activity in which gangs engage is neither violent nor criminal (Decker and Van Winkle 1996; Hagedorn 1998; Fleischer 1998; Spergel 1995). Instead of maturing out of gangs by getting married or finding a job, as was observed in the past, many young adults, unable to find jobs in a depressed inner-city economy, continue their gang affiliation into adulthood.

Prior to 1994, estimates of the size of national-level gang crime problems were made from nonsystematic samples of law enforcement agencies (Miller 1975; Curry, Ball, and Fox 1994). In 1994, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency prevention established the National Youth Gang Center (NYGC) in Tallahassee, Florida. In addition to serving as a clearinghouse for available gang information, the gang center has conducted annual systematic surveys of law enforcement agencies. From these surveys, trends in the distribution of gang problems have been observed. Particular measures of gang problems include the number of municipalities with gangs, the number of gangs, and the number of gang members. As can be seen in Table 1, these measures indicate that the magnitude of the U.S. gang problem has remained relatively stable across the NYGC surveys. There is no question, however, that the national gang problem is a large one, larger than at any previous period in American history.

Table 1 Magnitude of U.S. Gang Problem Estimated by National Youth Gang Survey


Number of Municipalities

Number of Gangs

Number of Gang Members





















At one time, there was a widespread belief that gangs were migrating to smaller cities and rural areas in order to expand criminal activity. In smaller cities and rural counties, however, the gang problem remains significantly smaller and less deadly than in larger cities (Egley and Major 2003). Gang problems remain a large-city urban phenomenon. Perceptions of gang migration as the source of gang proliferation in the early 1990s have been shown to be largely unfounded (Maxson 1998). Just like the rest of the U.S. population, gang members migrate for social reasons and not to extend gang crime.

How Are Females Involved in Gangs?

Female involvement in gangs has been differentiated from involvement by males (Miller 1998; Miller 2001). While male gang members are more violent than female members, gang-involved females engage in more violence than male delinquents not involved in gangs (Miller and Brunson 2000; Peterson, Miller, and Esbensen 2001). Female gang members create their own hierarchies that are independent of male hierarchies within the same gangs. Gender makeup of gangs has been observed to have effects on levels of violence and other criminal activity.

What Are the Social Processes of Gang Involvement?

Research has continued to show that few gang members join gangs as a result of gang recruitment. Two factors that have been suggested to be associated with gangs across cities are the growth of isolated impoverished inner-city populations and the dissemination of gang culture in mass media (Klein 1995). At the individual level, gang involvement has been seen as a transitional process. Thornberry et al. (2002) show that for most gang members there is a distinct period of gang membership that is associated with more delinquent offending before and after the period of gang involvement. Egley (2003) emphasizes that between non-gang-involved youth and gang members is a large segment of youth in at-risk populations who are marginally involved in gangs.

These marginally involved youths are significantly more involved in delinquency than nongang youths, but significantly less involved in delinquency than youths who identify themselves as gang members. Decker and Van Winkle (1996) discuss a number of neighborhood dynamics that correspond with increased gang involvement. A major reason reported by gang members is that they join the gang for protection. Ironically violent victimization correlates highly with gang membership.

What Are Major Responses to Gangs?

Strategies of responding to gang-related crime problems have not changed much over the twentieth-century history of community reaction. Spergel and Curry (1990, 1993) group gang response strategies into five overarching categories: (1) suppression, (2) community organization, (3) opportunities provision, (4) social services, and (5) organizational change. The most common response for the heavily involved gang youth has almost always been suppression. Suppression includes all activities required to incarcerate gang members, which encompasses methods of member identification, agency coordination, and special processing of arrestees in terms of prosecution, trial, and sentencing. Community organization includes all efforts to promote the organization of legitimate forces within a community as a resistance to the organization of gangs. Opportunities provision is a strategy that operates under the long-standing assumption that gang involvement is not as appealing to individual youths as the alternative potential for employment and marriage. Social services provision operates under the assumption that gang members with counseling, role-modeling, attitude changes, and skills in conflict resolution will create their own opportunities to lead conventional lives. Organizational change incorporates increases in available resources or adjustments in institutional structures.

Based on an analysis of data gathered by the 1988 Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention/University of Chicago national survey of gang problems (Spergel and Curry 1990), suppression was most often the strategy identified as primary by respondents regardless of the perceived causes of gang crime problems. However, community organization and opportunities provision as primary strategies were the only ones statistically associated with perceived effectiveness of community-level gang response programs.

From the analyses of Spergel and his colleagues, a detailed model for implementing community programs in response to gangs has been created. During the last several years, the model (now called the “Spergel model”) has been tested in a number of communities. A recent account of the outcomes of several of these pilot studies has shown successes and failures (Spergel et al. 2003). The next step is refining the model.

Policy Recommendations

Though limited in quantity, research on gang-related crime is rich in findings. From these findings a number of policy recommendations can be offered:

1. Additional research on both gang activity and community reactions to gang activity is required.

2. Strategies of response and research on gangs should not be based on narrow definitions of what constitutes a gang developed within the parameters of a single locale and time.

3. Strategies of response developed on the basis of research on one gender or ethnicity should not be frivolously applied to gang involvement of another gender or ethnicity.

4. On the basis of the third recommendation, strategies of gang response are best controlled by the people who reside in the communities concerned.

5. Strategies of community organization combined with strategies of opportunity provision offer the greatest potential for immediate improvements in the level of gang-related crime problems.

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