Gangs are a controlling force in the America and around the world. In the United States, there is no universal definition of a gang. Terms such as gang, the street gang, and youth gang are often used interchangeably in practice. However, the federal law defines a gang as three or more persons who have adopted a group identity, such as a symbol, slogan, name or other physical marking, to create an atmosphere of intimidation. The definition of a gang that is used by the federal law establishes that the association of the three or more individuals has an underlying purpose to engage in criminal activity by using violence to reach its criminal objectives. Most of the state laws in the U.S. are consistent in defining a gang as an association of there or more individuals involved in criminal/illegal behavior with an intent to preserve the association’s reputation or power. The paper will address the gang-related aspects, such as the development and activities of gangs in the U.S and their influence on the condition of various states.
Different states have developed several criteria to discern between different motives and developments of gangs. The typology of gangs has been established to assist in the definition, recognition, and their eventual classification. The list that requires classification includes a group of friends, spontaneous criminal activity, purposive group, youth street gang and a structured criminal organization. Every category has specific defining features including age, ethnic composition, gender, and association.
Such association as a gang may arise as a result of different factors. To explain the formation of a gang, many researchers have emphasized the need to include the behavioral characteristics of gangs as associations and individual. Results of various studies suggest that one may join a gang for a valued social identity and status. As such, gangs act as an adaptive social mechanism intended to satisfy particular needs that are not met through socially and traditionally accepted avenues. The formation of a gang is facilitated by several factors commonly referred to as push and pull factors. The push factors include poverty, family instability and poor employment prospects. The other pull factors involved in the formation of a gang include power and a need for protection. Gangs are formed from a subculture created by lower socioeconomic class in response to exclusion from the privileged and mainstream culture. Gang formation stems from different opportunity structures. That is, if some members of society feel that they have limited access to legal means for achieving their goals, they will tend to explore avenues that give them access to illegitimate means. Therefore, the need to have a common push arises and leads to the formation of a gang.
Gang formation is, generally, a spatial and social process that is prevalent in areas characterized by social disorganization. The conventional agents of socialization, such as schools and family, are the first stimulants in the formation of a gang. When these agents become ineffective and alienate some members, it leads to the development of an association with other members facing the same ordeal experiences. Due to the isolation, ensuing competition, and inevitable conflicts, some societal members become “naturally selected” for the formation of a gang. These aspects create a pull factor on the members of society, who seek for a sense of belonging and protection in the false haven. When formed, a gang acquires some unique features. Most often, a gang will compose some defining rules for operations within the association, establish an identifiable structure and meet on a regular basis. The association may offer physical protection to fellow members and seek to exercise control over a particular region.
Violence is a major characteristic associated with the gangs. However, not all gang activities involve fights. The term gang is often a judgmental and negative term that is applied by various sectors to all sorts of associations. It is common for groups of youth to be referred to as gangs even if they are friends who have no ulterior motives. Adolescents tend to form friendship groups as they develop. However, the inappropriate labeling of such groups as unnecessary gangs has driven the false bias that their major activity is instigating violent behavior. Not all gangs are involved in creating violent scenes or inducing fear on other members of society. The media has sensationalized the idea of violence in all gangs to an extent that the mention of the term is enough to form a false perception. As a result, the authorities often think and refer to many small groups of offenders as gangs, even when the members in question never viewed themselves in that sense. As mentioned above, clear typologies can assist in defining and classifying different groups so that a group of friends is not mistaken for a gang. From this perspective, forming groups that can be referred to as gangs does not necessarily translate into the idea that they will engage in fights and other violent activities.
The notion that gangs are focused on fighting is not far-fetched. In the United States, gang violence is high. Street gangs, criminal business organizations, and youth groups have been known to engage in violent activities that have led to a high number of casualties. Street gangs, for example, develop with the major objective to control territories and plan organized violent activities against other rival groups. It is estimated that the U.S. harbors around 1.7 million gang members. The report by the FBI also indicates that these members are a part of the 33,000 violent street gangs, prison gangs and motorcycle gangs. All these gangs use violence to control territories and to boost their illegal moneymaking deals. These gangs take part in such activities as robberies, drug trafficking, gun trafficking, extortions, and fraud. Reports indicate that Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, Oakland, Long Beach and Newark are the capitals of gang homicide. According to Berg, gangs are responsible for about 48% of violent crimes in most of the jurisdictions, and up to almost 90% in others. Chicago has overcome LA as the gang capital with a 150,000 gang members. What is worse, 80% of all murders and shootings recorded in Chicago are usually related to gang fights. Exacerbating the challenge, some factions of the larger gangs are willing to start a fight at the slightest provocation with anyone unfamiliar, who is considered to be encroaching on a specific territory. In Los Angeles, there were over 16,000 verified fights and violent gang crimes, the majority of which are a result of turf wars. Several statistics indicate that one of the common elements of gangs is violence.
Some police service policies define a gang as a group of people who consort to engage in an unlawful practice. Complete statistics on violence and homicide perpetuated by gangs is difficult to track because only few accurately report the crime rates well. The statistics available are limited by the information presented at the crime scene. However, all indications point to the fact that gangs are involved in violence. Street gangs are mostly involved in criminal activity ranging from street robberies to turf wars with rival groups. They have been known to use intimidation, fights and other forms of violence to ensure the protection of their crew and covering illegal activities.
State laws tend to have one thing in common. When it comes to the definition of a gang, the involvement of gang members in illegal/criminal behavior is dominant. Different localities interested in dealing with anti-gang strategies are faced with the challenge of constructing an operational definition for the term gang and gang crime. In the same context, criminal justice policymakers operate under the practical definitions presented to them, which are unique to each locality. Various states have instituted some criteria and threshold levels that an offender has to meet to be classified a gang member. According to Flemming, formation of a gang follows a spatial and social process that is prevalent in areas that are characterized by social disorganization. Most often, the push factors include poverty, family instability, poor schooling and poor employment prospects. On the other hand, the pull factors that may lead to the formation of a gang include power, prestige and a need for protection.
The activities associated with a gang may vary from one group to another. Not all gangs are involved in organizing violent scenes or inducing fear on other members of the society. However, street gangs formed in such states as Los Angeles and Oklahoma have been known to engage in violent activities that have led to a high number of casualties. The state and federal departments have to involve all stakeholders to minimize the impact of gangs on the society. The current estimation of the members involved in gangs in the U.S. is 1.7 million. Collaboration between all stakeholders is expected to reduce the high number of street gangs that, according to the FBI, estimates at 33,000 across the U.S.