All types of communities across the nation, youth gangs disrupt public life and deplete law enforcement resources. Efforts of local law enforcement agencies are at the heart of the nation's progress in responding to youth gang problems.
Local police protect their communities from gang-perpetrated crime and violence, contribute to data-gathering projects that guide the development of effective strategies for addressing gang problems, and collaborate with other organizations in their communities to identify and address local problems.
The resources described in this article are available to support these efforts.
A Brief History of Youth Gangs
The origins of youth gangs in the United States are uncertain. Their first recorded appearance may have been as early as 1783, at the end of the American Revolution. Gangs spread in New England in the early 1800s, as the Industrial Revolution gathered momentum in the first major cities (New York, Boston, and Philadelphia). They then began to flourish in Chicago and other large cities during the industrial era. The nation has witnessed four distinct periods of gang growth and peak activity: the late 1800s, the 1920s, the 1960s, and the 1990s.
Modern-era youth gangs have been influenced by a number of trends. During the 1970s and 1980s, greater mobility and access to more lethal weapons meant that many gangs became more dangerous. The1980s and 1990s saw changes in the age composition of gangs - younger and older gang members both became more common. Modern-era gangs are characterized by more members with prison records or ties to prison inmates, more lethal weapons, less concern with territory, more use of alcohol and drugs, and greater involvement in drug trafficking. Gangs have recently become more prevalent in rural counties, small cities and towns.
The National Youth Gang Survey
Each year since 1996, the National Youth Gang Center has surveyed a nationally representative sample of police and sheriff's departments about gang activity in their jurisdictions. In 1998 (the latest year for which survey results are available), 48 percent of the 2,688 respondents reported that youth gangs were active in their jurisdictions. Based on survey findings, it is estimated that a total of 4,464 jurisdictions nationwide experienced gang activity in 1998 and that 28,700 gangs and 780,000 gang members were active.
Since 1996, there has been a slight but steady decline in gang presence (see table). In 1998, however, 42 percent of National Youth Gang Survey (NYGS) respondents reported that the gang problem in their jurisdiction was staying about the same, 28 percent said it was getting worse, and 30 percent said it was getting better.
The NYGS reports gang activity by four area types: large cities, suburban counties, small cities and rural counties (see chat1). Between 1997 and 1998, the number of gangs decreased by 2 percent in large cities and suburban counties, 13 percent in small cities, and 9 percent in rural counties. The number of gang members remained virtually unchanged in large cities, decreased by 3 percent in small cities and 16 percent in suburban counties, but increased by 3 percent in rural counties.
The NYGS also measures the demographic composition of gangs. In 1998, an estimated 92 percent of gang members nationally were male and 8 percent were female; only 1.5 percent of gangs were female-dominated. The age distribution of gang members in 1998 was as follows: under age 15, II percent; ages 15-17, 29 percent; ages 18-24, 46 percent; and over age 24, 14 percent. The racial/ethnic distribution was as follows: Hispanic/Latino, 46 percent; African American, 35 percent; Caucasian, 12 percent; Asian, 6 percent; and other, 2 percent. About 33 percent of gangs had a significant mixture of racial/ethnic groups.
The 1998 survey confirmed previous survey findings that gang members are often involved in a variety of serious and violent crimes. About half of the agencies that reported gang problems said they were involved in collaborative efforts with other law enforcement and criminal justice agencies to address these problems.
Role of the OJJDP
Through the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), the federal government provides national leadership, coordination and resources to prevent and respond to juvenile delinquency and child victimization. Located within the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs, OJJDP sponsors a broad array of research, program and training initiatives.
Addressing the youth gang problem is one of OJJDP's top priorities. An entire section ("Part D") of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, as amended - the Federal law authorizing OJJDP - is devoted to the definition and funding of gang-related programs. In fiscal year (FY) 2000, OJJDP dedicated $12 million to continue existing Part D programs and explore new ones.
OJJDP has developed a comprehensive, coordinated response to youth gang problems. The response encompasses a wide range of programs and projects, including research, prevention, intervention, suppression and information sharing. Among the initiatives funded for FY 2000 are the following:
• Comprehensive Community-Wide Approach to Gang Prevention, Intervention and Suppression Program (Comprehensive Gang Model): Beginning in FY 1995, OJJDP awarded funds to five jurisdictions to help them reduce gang violence by implementing the Comprehensive Gang Model. The model includes five key strategies: mobilizing communities, providing youth opportunities, suppressing gang violence, providing social interventions and street 0utreach, and facilitating organizational change and development.
- National Youth Gang Center: OJJDP continues to fund the National Youth Gang Center (NYGC), in Tallahassee, Fla. The NYGC is a "one-stop shop" for information about gangs and effective responses to them. Established in 1995, the NYGC analyzes state and local gang legislation and local anti-gang ordinances, reviews the literature on gangs, compiles and analyzes data about gangs, and identifies effective gang program strategies. The NYGC also conducts the National Youth Gang Survey, cited above. The NYGC is also the principal technical assistance component for OJJDP-funded anti-gang programs. For information about the NYGC, phone (850) 385-0600 or visit www.iir.comlnygc.
- Rural Gang Initiative: OJJDP continues to fund the adaptation of the Comprehensive Gang Model at four rural sites and also funds evaluation, training and technical assistance for these efforts.
- Gang Prevention Through Targeted Outreach (Boys & Girls Clubs): The purpose of this program is to enable local Boys & Girls Clubs to prevent youth from entering gangs, intervene with gang members early in their involvement and divert youth from gang life into more constructive activities. The program reflects an ongoing collaboration between OJJDP and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to reduce problems of juvenile delinquency and violence.
- Publications: OJJDP offers a wide range of publications presenting authoritative information related to gangs, including a special series of bulletins that address such key issues as gang migration, gang growth, female involvement with gangs, homicide, drugs and violence, and the needs of communities and youth that live in the presence of gangs. A list of selected publications appears at the end of this article. The publications may be ordered through OJJDP's Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse (see below).
- Funding opportunities: Among forthcoming funding opportunities from OJJDP are programs to replicate OJJDP's comprehensive Gang Model in additional communities and to develop a school-focused enhancement of the model. Law enforcement agencies wishing to develop a strategic and comprehensive approach to local youth gang problems are encouraged to consider this support. Information about funding opportunities is available through the Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse.
- Training and technical assistance:
In 1999, OJJDP sponsored the second national youth gang symposium, which was designed to help practitioners put research into practice; 1,200 practitioners (including many law enforcement officials) attended. OJJDP also provides communities with training and technical assistance on youth gang issues through an agreement with the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).
- Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse: All OJJDP publications are available through the Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse (JJC). JJC also answers information requests via phone, fax or e-mail.
Mail: Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse, P.O. Box 6000, Rockville, MD 20849-6000.
Phone: (800)638-8736 (Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m. ET).
Fax: (410) 792-4358 (publication orders), (301) 519-5600 (other assistance).
JJC also supports OJJDP's Website, www.ojjdp.ncjrs.org, where users can download gang-related publications and access a comprehensive description of OJJDP's gang-related resources.
Other Federal Activities
The Department of Justice's commitment to addressing gang-related issues is also reflected in the work of two other Office of Justice Program bureaus: the research and evaluation activities of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and the training and technical assistance activities of the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA). The OJJDP-sponsored Youth Gang Consortium works to coordinate gang program development and information exchange among numerous Federal agencies and Department of Justice bureaus. A report on Consortium anti gang activities can be found at the NYGC Web site, www.iir.com/nygc.
Youth gangs have proliferated rapidly over the past two decades. Recent survey results suggest that the tide may be turning, but history demonstrates that gangs are unlikely to disappear. Progress is being made in identifying the risk factors that lead young people to join gangs and in developing comprehensive programs that combine prevention, social intervention and rehabilitation, and suppression of gang violence. Local law enforcement agencies continue to be critical to this progress and to much of the work that lies ahead.
Lynn Marble is a senior writer-editor with the Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.