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Published: Fri, 02 Feb 2018
why young people join street gangs
This dissertation will examine and explore the issues of why young people join street gangs. Research has been undertaken on gangs and my dissertation looks at a range of concepts and theories relating to street gangs and young people. Therefore I will be discussing different theoretical explanations about young people and street gangs.
This topic is of great interest to me as I know individuals who have got themselves involved in criminal behaviour, but at a young age we shared the same values. So why are some of us in higher education and working, whilst some of our peers are involved in criminal activity and have criminal records?
This topic of young people and streets gangs is of great interest to me for a number of reasons. Firstly due to my life experiences, as a kid I was raised up in a neighbourhood where street gang activity was present, among Jamaican/Caribbean and Asian members. I have interacted with gang members in my early years and I also know individuals who have been and still are involved in a street gang.
In terms of reference, for this research paper young people are referred to children, teenagers and adolescents. For the purpose of this work young people are those to be aged between 13 and 21.
This paper will focus on street gangs only. The term street gangs in this paper will be referred to a group of youths who form an allegiance, bound together by mutual interests, with identifiable leadership, well- developed lines of authority, and other organisational features, who act in concert to achieve a specific purpose or purposes which include the conduct of illegal and criminal activity and control over a particular territory, facility, or type of enterprise. (Walter Miller 1980:121). They may also have one or more of the following qualities such as sharing a common group name, share common symbols, tattoos, graffiti, style of dress, claim a location and have regular continues gathering.
The concern of young people in gangs is a very popular subject study area in sociology, psychology and criminology and this fits in well with my degree as there is an in creasing number of young people joining street gangs which has raised alarming concerns to the wider public, political parties and to the criminal justice system. The concern of young people in street gangs is alarming due to an increasing report of gang related incidents.
Statistics show that up to 6% of Britain’s 10-19 year olds claim to belong to a gang. There has been an 89% increase in the past 5 years in the number of under-16s taken to hospital with serious stab wounds, and a 75% increase among older teenagers. The percentage of school children reporting having carried a knife also showed an increased by more than 50% between 2002 and 2005. The Risk of being a victim of crime is also up from 22% to 23% according to the British crime survey 2008/09. The concern of street gangs is alarming in the United States. Declassified National Gang Assessment 2009 report showed an increase of 36.5% in street and youth gang members sine 2002.
My dissertation will involve looking at vast majority of theories to why young people join street gangs. I will be looking at psychological, criminological, sociological theories and other school of thoughts so I can explore and evaluate their ideas and concepts as different school of thoughts have different views. I will be using books like Criminal behaviour by Elaine Cassel, Douglas A. Bernstein and Critical issues in crime and justice by Albert R. Roberts to explain theories.
For example Criminologist Edwin H. Sutherland for instance developed the idea that criminal behaviour is learned and that it is learned through the process of “differential association.” Sunderland believed that people learned and adopted values and behaviours of other people, especially people whom they had known for long and had frequent contact with over a long period of time. He suggested that if other people were held in a high regard, this would have also impacted on weather his or her values and behaviours were adopted by the individual. For example if the individual’s father was involved in a gang and used violent behaviour it is possible that the individual would have adopted the same attributes as it is his/her farther.
On the other hand Psychologist Neil Ribner believes that the primary reason why young people join street gangs is so that they can ultimately feel, and proclaim with passion, “I am some body!”. He explains that young people who join groups no longer feel alienated or demoralized and they feel much better about them selves. For this reason he explains this is why it is so difficult to get young people out of any group that is powerful and passionate. They would not leave as they feel so much better about them selves.
Abraham Maslow (1998) described that weather a gang is legal or illegal; members join for the same reasons which are rooted in the five basic human needs. Maslow describes these as physiological needs, the need for safety, the need for love / belongingness, the need for self esteem, and the need to feel that one has potential to reach specific goals (self-actualization). Maslow basically indicated they all want security of being able to be identified with a group and find solidarity through the group membership. (Critical issues in crime and justice by Albert r. Roberts). And there are those people that “follow the crowd” in doing things they would never do on their own (prentice- Dunn & Rogers, 1989).
There are many theories on why young people are involved in street gangs, some however consider it to be related to genes. Kevin Beaver, a biosocial criminologist from Florida State University (FSU) states that latest study released on June 5th 2009 shows that a low level Allele activity of the Monoamine Oxidase (MAO-A) gene in young men, both increased likelihood of joining a gang and to a greater tendency to use weapons and violence. Kevin Beaver states “For the first time, we were able to establish a direct connection between the MAO-A gene and the choosing of a violent lifestyle”.
For my dissertation I will be undertaking a variety of research from secondary to primary sources. I will be undertaking secondary research from a wide range of books, articles, journals, publications and home office reports which would help to write up this dissertation.
The advantage of using secondary research is that there is a variety of literate on young people and street gangs that is available for me to use. For the purpose of theories and background information there are a variety of books available from educated professional who would provide me with an enormous wealth of information including facts, figures and opinions.
For my secondary research I would also use visual and audio recorded interviews of ex-gang members who have shared their life experiences as being in a gang. This will be done by attending events and gatherings where ex-gang members share their life stories with youths about the danger of that life style.
This can help me to understand gangs and the reasons why some choose to enter or exit gangs. Secondary research will help me to analyse existing information and help me to explore certain areas in depth.
My primary research would include interviewing real gang members who are present in a gang or have experience of being in a gang. To do this I have decided to get in touch with gang members from the United States of America. The reason for this is because not only America has very high levels of gang related violence compared to the UK but it also has an increasing rate of gangs and gang memberships. The media also portrays American gang culture as glamorous in the American movies and rap/hip-hop music videos, which often results in young people trying to adopt the life style as they see it as cool.
So by interviewing gang members from America, this would help me to see how gang life really is and why they have chosen to take part in gang membership. The interviews with the gang members from America would be done through online conference call, webcam or email etc and all ethical procedures will be considered such as keeping their identity private as they would not wish to be identified as they are gang members.
I would also get in touch with youth centres that deal with young people and gang members. I will try to talk to members of staff, asking questions about the subject matter of young people in gangs. The information gained will be written and baring in mind all ethical procedures will be taken into account such as health and safety for participants involved, keeping questions short, simple, to the point, as individuals will be busy themselves. The reason I have decided to choose these methods of research is because I believe that it is a very good way to find the results I am looking for and it would help me with my evaluation throughout.
History of youth street gangs
The issue of young people joining street gangs has indeed raised concern to adults and peer groups due to the unbearable violence and behaviour reported in the media and witnessed in communities. As I have mentioned previously in the UK and in the United States, statistics show that the level of street gang activity is on an increase. The phenomenon of street gangs is not new and street gangs do come from a long history.
Street gangs have been in existence for many centuries. During the 17th century street gangs were common in Great Briton, but little was known about them due to the lack of coherent research at the time. During the 17th century, church and court records did identify the presence of youth street gangs in England, Germany, France and Switzerland (Gillis, 1974, Klein, 1995, Sheldon et al. 1997).
The lack of coherent research on these street gangs meant that the names given to these groups were of a distinctly local character such as street Arabs, roughs and hooligans. The gangs in question were often territorially distinct groups that emerged from the impoverished working class neighbourhoods near the city center. They often engaged in violent clashes with neighbouring gangs and used a wide range of weapons (ibid. 108 and 188).
In North America, during the 18th and 19th century the growth of street gang activity resulted from such events, like the industrial revolution and the migration of European settlers. Street gang activity grew out of the class structured society based on ethnicity and racial distinctions. The industrial revolution and immigration was responsible for forming slum conditions and poverty in a class structured society. This was creating hardship and distress, and for many, joining a gang became a source of identity, social status, and economic survival in these dire conditions (Decker & Van Winkle, 1996).
Soon after, the first American criminal street gangs were reported. (Goldstein, 1991). In the early 1800’s street gangs such as the Fly Boys and Lo ng Bridge Boys existed.
These early gangs were not involved extensively in criminal activity but were rather mischievous and predatory groups (Valdez, 2000).
The first criminal street gang to be recognized in the United States was known as the forty thieves, formed in 1820. This was an Irish American street gang based in New York that rebelled against those who showed low social status and prejudice towards Irish immigrants. The gang engaged in criminal acts as a form of revolution to relieve their frustration as well as for profit. This later developed more Irish gangs in the area and the growth of rivalries and turf wars began to emerge.
Soon near the 19th century a number of gangs appeared throughout the United States. This included Chinese gangs that were developed in California, rebelling against poor treated Chinese people in the rail way industry. In the city, the first gang activity that had been reported was in 1840 and by 1870 the city stated over 100 active street gangs were present.
At this point New York remained the ‘hotspot’ of street gang activity with the presence of many other gangs such as the African American, Jewish, Italian and Irish street gang being reported in 1865 ( Valdez, 2000). These were the first gangs that were established in the face of poverty, squalid conditions, and great prejudice.
However, by the 20th century new types of street gangs began to form. There gangs focused on the economic differences than class distinction due to ethnicity. As the economy fell into the great depression, gang development, activity and violence increased across America. This resulted in the development of Mexican and west coast African American gangs in los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit and Boston.
However it did not stop there, soon after the Second World War, new types of gangs began to appear across America such as motorcycle and prison gangs. Violence, gang membership and proliferation have indeed increased since the early years, and up to the current situation every American state is now holding claim to street gang ownership. (Valdez, 2000).
“Nearly every nationality is represented in America gang history” (Haskins 1974,p.7).
SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM IN AMERICA
The problem of street gang activity however is not as easy to recognize. This is largely due to many differing definitions of what makes a gang and various methods of identifying gang members. So estimates of the actual number of street gangs and gang members in the United States fluctuate due to this. Nevertheless the U.S National Gang Center (2005) statistics illustrates the scope of the problem.
A study by the U.S National Youth Gang Center (2005) identified 21,500 street gangs throughout America in 2002, which made up of 731,500 gang members. This study showed that every city with a population of 150,000 or more reported the presence of active youth gangs. The same was held for 87 percent of cities with populations between 100,000 and 250,000.
In the following year, the National Youth Gang Center (2006) report, estimated figures of active street gang membership up to 785,000. Followed by the most recent (NYGC) 2009 study, yearly estimates of the total number of youth gangs from 1996 to 2007 averaged around 26,000. The survey reported a yearly decline in the number of gangs from 1996 over 30,000 to a low 20,000 in 2003. But according to the survey, figures have been steadily rising in the recent years.
The most recent NYGC (2009) annual survey it estimates the period 2007 with over a figure of 25,000 gangs. The survey also indicates that the larger cities and suburb areas remain the primary locations of youth gangs accounting for over 60 percent nationwide. Smaller cities estimate one third of gangs and rural areas under 6 percent.
Distribution of Gangs by Area Type, 2007 Pie Chart
National Youth Gang Center (2009). National Youth Gang Survey Analysis.
In the United States the level of gang activity has shown alarming rates over the past years. The problem of street gangs is found in all most all fifty states. It is also reported that majority of the violence is committed by youth gang members (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001).
In the late 1970’s miller estimated that 83 percent of the largest cities had street gang problems as did 27 percent of cities with a population of 100,000 or more and 13 percent of cities with populations of 10,000 or more (W, Miller 1982, chaps. 2,3). Howell (2006), in an analysis of the National Youth Gang Surveys, reports that four of the 10 largest US cities reported an average of 10 gang related homicides in 2002-2003.
What is more worrying than the actual numbers of street gangs is the rate of their growth. Walter Miller (1982) conducted a national survey estimating 700 to 3000 street gangs in existence in the largest cities in the U.S. Howell, (1998) had stated estimates of more than 30,000 gangs with over 800,000 members.
The increasing number of gangs and memberships reported also reflected from the figures of the U.S cities that reported gang involvement. The figures reported 54 gangs in 1961 to 94 in 1970, 172 in 1980, and 766 in 1992; Klein, 1993), as well as the increasing rate of violence linked to gang activity. The National Youth Gang Center survey analysis (2009), estimated an annual total number of 775,000 gang members in the 12 year survey. As well as that, recent National Gang Assessment (2009) report also showed an increase of 36.5 percent in street and youth gang members since 2002. An increase in criminal gang activity was also reported by 58 percent of law enforcement agencies and a 13% rise since 2004.
Estimated Number of Gang Members, 1996-2007 Bar Chart
National Youth Gang Center (2009). National Youth Gang Survey Analysis.
Moreover a recent study by the National Drug Threat Survey (NDTS) 2008, indicates that gang influence over drug trafficking in the United States is stable or increasing slightly. (NDTS) 2008 data shows that 58 percent of the state and local law enforcement agencies throughout America reported street gangs were active in drug trafficking in their areas. The data showed a 55 percent increase from 2006 and by 2007 it grew to 58 percent and this stayed stable since 2007. NDTS data also showed that the figures from drug trafficking by street gangs remained stable from 2006 (35%) to 2007 (36%) to 2008 (36%).
However these gang figures presented are estimates from the law enforcement agencies and as Petersen (2004) cautioned, these figures may be over or underestimated, as they are estimates. When referring to figures on street gangs and gang membership in the United States, it is very difficult to gather accurate figures for many reasons. Firstly gangs do not keep official records of their membership. Everyday, gangs are shaping in different sizes with members joining and leaving on a regular basis. Some people however may not have gang membership but do hang out with gang members, which raises the question, is that person a member? It is also important to note that when a police officer asks a gang member are you in a gang, chances are the answer would be no, as the individual would know police take known gang membership seriously. Some youths however may claim to have gang membership around other teens to seem tough and gangs could also fake membership figures to make their gang seem more powerful than others. So it is appropriate to say that police department’s reports on gang statistics are not always reported accurately. Police fighting gang violence can be presented with exaggerated gang numbers to give departments motivation while some departments may deny having gang problems at all to appease the public. This for these very reasons the problem of street gangs could be more than estimated.
Generally it is assumed that young people belonging to gangs seem to be much more violent compared to youths who are not in gangs ( Klein, 1995). Youths who join gangs from minor criminal activity, move toward more violent criminal involvement (Elliott & Menard, 1993).
However, as there is little disbelief of the rapid growth of numbers of gangs and gang membership since the mid eighties, the relationship with increased violence is less certain. Some gangs can be linked with a tremendous amount of violence at a certain period of time. For example, in 1995, 790 gang homicides were reported in Los Angeles County with an estimate of 1,142 identified street gangs present (Block, 1995).
Yet, suburban gangs are linked with relatively little violent crime which is unclear, whether increases in homicide in youths are due to increased gang members, drug trafficking, weapons or a growth in youth violence nationwide ( Goldstein et. al., 1994: Klein, 1993). Such questions are unclear in this period of time but many current gang writers view street gang problem in America as large and growing.
THE SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM IN THE UNITED KINDOM
The problem of street gangs is not unique to American cities. The United Kingdom likewise shares the same problem but on a much lower scale compared to the United States.
Research from the New Adam program (2003) estimated that in Manchester alone there were over 1,000 people involved in gangs (Shropshire and McFarquhar, 2003). It was also reported in the same survey that the UK average age of becoming involved in a gang was dropping. In 2004 the program estimated 20,000 active gang members aged 18 or over (Bennett & Holloway 2004)
In 2006 the Home office reported almost half a million gang members regularly breaking the law and intimidating their communities. Many young people were reported taking illegal drugs, carryings weapons, vandalising property, frightening people passing by and being involved in serious violence. The study also showed that more than one third had committed at least one serious offence over the previous year. These offences included the theft of a car or hard drugs, assault, mugging and burglary. It was also reported that one in eight had carried a knife and one in 100 had carried a gun. The study showed that 4 in 10 gang members said they had threatened or frightened other people, 29 percent had used violence or force and 36 percent had written graffiti and 31 percent took part in vandalizing property. From the study it was also known that the average street gang around fifteen members.
However in recent reports it is estimated that there are 50,000 teenagers in gangs in Britain today (Sky news, Tom Parmenter, 2009). A study by Professor John Pitts of the University of Bedfordshire also found in his research that showed that 40% of young people in parts of London were “reluctant gangsters” and had no criminal record what so ever. He also reported from his studies that some of these children were scared of leaving a gang or disagreeing with its aim as they feared that the gang would use violence on them (Dominic Casciani Home affairs reporter, BBC News 2007).
Moreover the problem of street gang violence seems to on a steady increase from previous years. For instance, according to statistics from the Centre for Social Justice ( 2007), up to 6% of Britain’s 10-19 year olds claim to belong to a gang. There has been an 89% increase in the past 5 years in the number of under-16s taken to hospital with serious stab wounds, and a 75% increase among older teenagers. The percentage of school children reporting having carried a knife also showed an increased by more than 50% between 2002 and 2005.
The Risk of being a victim of crime is also up from 22% to 23% according to the British crime survey 2008/09. It is also reported that in Manchester and Liverpool around 60% of shootings are gang-related and half of the 27 murders of young people perpetrated by other young people in London were also gang related (2007). Police say just over 100 young people are involved in gangs in the L11 postcode area in Liverpool.
As well as that, there have been reports of 257 crime linked street gangs in London alone but these figures are not recognised by the Metropolitan Police. The reason for this is due to the fact that gangs constantly change, rename them selves, form or break up, so it is very difficult to place a number. For this very reason the number of street gangs can be lower or higher than expected.
However the problem of street gangs is not as bad as in America, where the culture of gangs in the cities like Los Angeles and Boston are much more violent. Gang membership in these cities can run into the thousands, with widespread violence with neighboring territories.
Then again, the problem of street gangs in the UK may not be as bad as compared to America but the increasing number of violence and steady rise in membership reported indicates the direction of travel.
Female Street Gangs
The presence of female gang membership can be found in the early 19th century (Valdez, 2000). Other researchers have reported that female gang activity has been documented since the early 1920s (Thrasher 1927/1963, Asbury, 1927).
Historically, most researchers believe that ten percent of all gang members are female. Many researchers have viewed female gangs as poor imitations of male gangs, but are very capable of committing violent criminal acts, but not in the same proportion as males’ (Delaney, 2006, p.227).
Female gang members are found to be actively involved in violent acts such as fighting and holding important roles and position in their gangs than being simple “sex objects” (Miller, 2002).
The National Gang Threat Assessment (2005), notes that there is a continues role in young females in gangs, assisting in the movement of drugs, weapons, and gathering intelligence from other gangs ( p.v). Most often females assist the male gang, serving as decoys for rival gang members, as lookouts during acts of crimes or as carriers of weapons when a gang war is impending. They are also known for carrying information in and out of prisons and provide sexual favours as they are often drug dependent and physically abused by male gang members. Although the number of female gangs is increasing, gangs are still predominately male. Female gangs have been around for nearly as long as male gangs, most of them remain auxiliary to male gangs.
Over the past years the study of female street gangs has become increasingly more important due to the rising numbers in female gang membership in the United States. The scope of the problem of female gangs however is not as easy to recognize. The reason for this is because not only it is difficult to identify gang members as explained in the previous chapter, but figures of female gang memberships stated by official data sources are not as accurate as gangs break up and form every day, (Curry, Ball, and Fox, 1994). What also complicates matters is the fact that female gang members can be involved in several types of gangs which could include mixed gangs of male and females, auxiliary gangs, where female gangs are affiliated with male gangs and independent female gangs (Miller, 1975).
However to get a rough idea of how bad the situation is of female gang members, the National Youth Gang Survey (1996-2000) reported that 94 percent of street gang members in the United States were identified as males and 6 percent females. 39 percent of all youth gangs were also reported to have female memberships.
In another study by the National Gang Threat Assessment (2005), it reported a continues role in young females in gangs, assisting in the movement of drugs and weapons, and gathering intelligence from other gangs ( p.v).
In recent reports from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (2008), reported that 32.4 percent of boys and 29.4 percent of girls in high risk crime neighbourhoods claimed to have gang membership. A review of research on girl gangs show that some young women find themselves trapped in horrible social conditions “ characterized by widespread poverty and racism “( Shelden et al., p.174). While the most common age at which girls enter gangs is 11 or 12, with the prime age of initiation occurring between ages 13 and 14, Eghigian and Kirby (p.48) note: “it is not unheard of for girls to slide into gang involvement as early as age 8. Those who enter at this age and up to 10 years of age often have relatives who are gang members or have experienced a strong gang presence in their neighbourhoods.”
There is a general consensus that exists in the research literature explaining that girls join gang life for the same reasons as their male counterparts, to meet basic human needs such as belonging/being a member of a family, self esteem and protection (Shelden et al.. p.175).
Females join to fulfil social, personal and emotional needs which they lack from in their own homes due to abuse and or dysfunctional. (Chesney-Lind, 1993).
One theory which is similar to the strain theory of delinquency, explains that females from the lower class tend to join a gang to fulfil and achieve middle class goals in the absence of legitimate means to do so. In order to achieve and get by in their social and economic situation, they turn to the illegitimate means of gang activity (Rosenbaum, 1996).
In the UK, the literature on gangs, especially girl gangs is less developed as in the united states. However According to the metropolitican police (2009), in london alone 174 gangs have been identified where as only 3 of which were all female. As this is a very small figure of female gangs yet a report from the home office (2009) recently suggested that crimes commited by 10 years old girls has increased by 25% over the past three years and by 2008, 15,000 violent crimes were reported to be carried out by young women.
The metropolitican police (2008) declare that they don’t know much about this growing social phenomenon. The police department stated that “the actual number could be much greater than this; it is based purely on police intelligence.”
The culture of Street gangs in the UK and in America were mainly seen as a male preserve but not any more as stastics and reports indicate a rise in female involvement in street gangs. In the UK female street gang incidents are currently being reported on the tv, an example of how bad the situation of female gangs is in the UK is by looking at the incidents over the past years. In 2008 police in Brixham reported a gang fight of up to 30 girls from the age of 12, with knives and other weapons. As well as that, in Stratford in London a 17 year old female gang ring leader and a 16 year old girl were put behind bars for brutally attacking a 16 year old girl, giving the reason that she disrespected the 17 year olds mother. What is also shocking is that it was reported that the 16 year old attacker while detained in a young offender’s institution had remarked heartlessly that they should have got her raped by a male.
In England and Wales the concern on female gangs has got the attention of a wider audience. In 2002 the chairman of the youth justice board in England and Wales, also expressed the issue that young females were being used by male gang members for sexual services, hiding weapons and drugs.
The number of girls in gangs has skyrocketed, not just in inner cities, but in suburban areas. They join gangs for the same reasons males do: friendship, a sense of belonging and security. And they run the very same, unglamourous risks: prison time, drug addiction, injury or death (Dunham, 1995, p. 52).
The impact of Street Gangs
As mentioned previously, street gangs have been present for many years but the effect it has on society is usually negative. Although some people may create a gang for the purpose to be safe from violence but however this safety is usually done by acts of crime. One of the reasons that gangs cause a big threat is because crime plays a big role in gangs. Innocent people can be caught up getting injured or even killed through turf wars, drive by shooting or even a theft of an auto.
Gang members take part in all form of criminal activity, weather it is for personal or economic gain, revenge or hate. Examples of crimes that are committed by street gangs are rape, murder, fraud, assault, theft, arson, home invasions, prostitution, public disorder, armed robbery and the trade and use of weapons/ drugs (Huff, 1998; Thornberry et al., 2003).
Some activities also include property damage including graffiti which is seen to be the first sign of a gang’s presence in a community. Gang graffiti is not only advertises the gang’s presence but it is a sign of claiming a territory. Gang activity not only causes fear to people but the outcome results of gang activity also costs a lot of money to Governments. For example, according to the Princes T
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