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Proactive Problem Solving: Gangs 1


Proactive Problem Solving for Tomorrow’s Gang Youth

Jake J. Koppenhaver

Juvenile Delinquency

Professor Robar

July 30, 2007

Proactive Problem Solving: Gangs 2

Proactive Problem Solving for Tomorrow’s Gang Youth

Gangs. For those who have seen gang activity at work—the control over a neighborhood,

the aftermath of a shooting, the power over youth—the very word brings emotions ranging from

fear to anger. For those in society who are unaware of true gang nature the media has long

sensationalized this activity, and most feelings are based on this. Many think that gangs operate

solely in large, metropolitan areas, and even then only in the “slums,” but the truth is that gangs

exist all over the United States. Law enforcement keeps constant intelligence data on gang

activity in order to help deter and reduce gang activity, however like most elements of crime it is

a constant battle. It is also true that gangs are not only surviving but growing, with the current

applicants and future members being the youth of our communities. They offer everything a

youth needs: Companionship, family, monetary gain, and room for growth albeit in a different

way. Experts have held that gang membership thrives in areas which experience economic

hardship, and according to others this hardship may be what prompts youth to leave the family to

enter into gang life. How can we as a community help to deter gang membership? Exploring

alternative economic solutions—as well as solutions which cater to the specific type of youth

most at risk for gangs—is the best way to proactively deter gang membership growth and ensure

that youth legitimately and successfully thrive in our communities.

In order to come to a solution, an understanding of different aspects of the problem is

required. Gangs are not a recent trend. While they have existed in some verifiable form in the

United States since the 19th century (KnowGangs, 2007), the 1950’s showed the worst juvenile

delinquency statistics the world had seen. Major cities such as New York enacted curfews to help

curb this issue, however at the time not many studies had been performed to realize the

widespread activity and cause of such delinquency rates. Due to many offenders being placed in

jails, the corrections system began seeing a surge in large gangs forming inside prisons across the
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country. The revolutionary nature of the 1960’s did little to help, although certain areas saw a

decline in blatant gang activity, possibly due to a combination of semi-successful community

programs and increased political awareness, prompting legitimate social activities (Siegel &

Welsh, 2005). The Vietnam War also saw many members drafted from the streets which

decreased gang populations. The 1970’s saw a surge in gang activity, primarily in large areas

such as New York. In 1971 gangs such as the Savage Skulls and Black Assassins ruled the streets

of the South Bronx area, and by 1975 the New York Police Department reported 275 known

gangs with eleven thousands confirmed members (Ibid.). New York was not alone, other

metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and Chicago reported similar gangs re-emergences. Soon

after, members of larger gangs began migrating to other areas to gain membership or take over

rival gangs. For example, the largest two gangs of Los Angeles, the famous Bloods and Crips,

saw membership emerge in Midwestern cities such as Columbus, Ohio. This expansion of gang

membership and activity has done very little to slow since the 1970’s and continues to this day,

strengthened by areas which gang activity thrives in, the gang “clusters” which comprise the

area, which become increasingly resistant to change and law enforcement actions.

Experts have determined various reasons why gangs re-emerged, however the biggest

reason may be seen in their hold on the illegal narcotics market. Many early gangs relied on

group loyalty, honor, and neighborhood protection to fuel their membership. Modern gangs on

the other hand are generally fueled by monetary gain through the quest for drug profits (Padilla,

1992). Street gangs, who were once often no more than a group of disorganized, destructive

juveniles looking for companionship and an escape from social issues now control much of the

drug trade, even replacing the larger organized crime families in many large cities. This quest for

illegal profit may show that the socio-economic climate of that period of time (which continues

in many ways to today) has given fuel to much of the modern gang activity we see. Recent
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statistics show that gangs operate nationally independent of how safe people may feel in

suburban or rural areas. While metropolitan areas which are affected by rapid growth and social

climate change (which in essence is all of them) (Wilson, W.J., 1987) still hold the highest

numbers of gang activity, with 100% of cities with populations greater than 250,000 reporting

active groups, 85% of cities with populations between 100,000 and 229,000, and 65% of cities

with populations between 50,000 and 99,000, other areas are not unaffected according to Arlen

Egley, Jr. and Aline K. Major. At least 35% of suburban counties report active gangs, with 11%

reported in rural counties (2001 National Youth Gang Survey), with 20% of those surveyed from

these areas claiming to be migrants from larger cities. These lesser populated areas are linked to

changes in urban cities, as some redevelopments in urban areas force gangs to outlying suburban

and rural areas (although sometimes this is done to so expand market shares in various crimes)

where they continue their growth. Furthermore, other statistics have estimated that almost 25,000

gangs are active in the United States comprised of almost 730,000 individual members (Egley,

2002). Statistics toward youth only are even more disturbing: A metropolitan survey of 6,000 8th

graders found that 11% (approximately 660 youth) claim affiliation with a gang.

It is important to note certain current issues which affect gang activities, membership, and

juvenile delinquency in a unique way. Our modern age is full of technologies such as e-mails,

text messages, social networking web sites (such as MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, etc.), and

web hosting available to any person who wishes to quickly and easily make their own web site

for the world to see. Youth are not inept when it comes to using technology in their daily lives,

and gangs know this. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, as of 2005 81%

of teens ages 12-17 used the internet on a daily basis. Other surveys by the Project have indicated

that since 2005 teen online activity has gone up by nearly 50% (Lenhart, Madden, & Hitlin,

2005). It is no question that gangs would be foolish not to establish web presence and exploit this
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teen internet interest. They aren’t foolish: Gangs routinely use web sites to post photos, videos,

and descriptions of crimes which they are involved in. Several profiles on the popular social

networking site used by teens, MySpace, claim to be held by gang members (Gutierrez, 2006).

While some detectives have not heard of many teens being recruited directly from internet

activities, it makes sense that connecting with gangs through this medium can certainly lead to

later initiation into the gang after connecting in person. Some parents may wonder why law

enforcement do not seek to shut down these web sites and profiles. Many are covered under the

Fourth Amendment, while many others provide police with valuable intelligence on gang

activities and even critical evidence in solving cases and identifying offenders.

Why do youth join gangs? Many people have strived to find the answer to this question.

Unfortunately, the answer to this question is often the same as to why any persons commits a

criminal act and involves a specific criminological theory to explain their decision. Is it

important to note that while general answers may be the same, youth are a special bunch as they

are still growing and developing. The decision to join a gang often falls into one of several basic

criminological theories, which can even be linked to one another in “stages” as it relates to

certain ideas. For the purpose of this paper the theories of social bond, social disorganization,

and rational choice will be discussed, along with proposed solutions based one each of these.

According to Travis Hirschi, “The bond of affection for conventional persons is a major

deterrent to crime (1972).” Social bond theory is based on this ideal and attempts to seek a

largely proactive solution to crime and delinquency. By catering to four main concepts, Hirschi

holds that youth are much more likely to be held to a level of accountability from various

institutions in their lives (such as parents, friends, teachers, etc.), and less likely to engage in

criminal behavior. These concepts—attachment, belief, commitment, and involvement—are the

heart of many anti-gang programs currently in place. Attachment refers to the bond the youth has
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with other social group members, often close family and friends. Those who lack these

attachments may feel “free to deviate.” When youths have little belief in values, or are not

exposed to solid, dominant morals, they tend to view laws with less regard. Without this belief in

living positively and morally juveniles may see their acting out in a criminal or gang-related

manner as normal and acceptable. Involvement is the level of participation a youth has in

conventional activities which reinforce these moral values and bonds with positive role models.

Commitment is an investment in these beliefs, that is, participating in activities which increase

the youth’s bond with their social surroundings, and forming a solid concept in their mind that

participating in negative activities (drinking and sex at young ages, gang activities and crime)

goes against that commitment. By enhancing each of these concepts in youth it seeks to help

keep them on a positive path.

Shaw and McKay (1972) began wide research into the theory of social disorganization as

it relates to crime. (For their purpose, social disorganization has been equated to areas with weak

community controls, thus leading to geographical areas with high crime and delinquency rates.)

The authors found in their research, after studying court actions, arrest statistics, and similar

criminal justice data, that which was present were not delinquent groups, but delinquent areas.

These areas were often seen as areas of transition, racial migration (often viewed as invasion by

those already present in this area), and lacking in re-development. Ultimately, these

phenomenons in an area led to increased amounts of crime and high rates of offending per

inhabitant, which in turn led to the strengthening of these traditions as means of success.

Through this strengthening it becomes more resistant to change and actions by law enforcement

to help control or eliminate crime. The targeting of youth in these areas to benefit from

community programs geared toward them and their families, often referred to as “at-risk youth,”
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is vital in the war on gangs as these youth are more likely to be exposed to gang activity at a

young age and grow up to follow the path of gang lifestyle.

Economists have their own theory on crime and juvenile delinquency. From the point of

view of costs and benefits, many decide to take part in illegal activity in order to attain monetary

gain or fulfill some other structured goal. According to The Reasoning Criminal (Cornish &

Clarke, 1986:1), found that (1) criminals attempt to benefit from the crimes they commit; (2) this

decision involves some measure of decision making in order to weigh the cost versus the benefit

of the action; and (3) there is a measure of rationality in these decisions which are made.

Through three stages of decision making which results in the crime itself (structuring the choice

based on one’s own skills, weighing the pros and cons of involvement in the crime, and deciding

to commit the actual event), the authors find that certain factors may either encourage the

decision or curb the offender’s actions. Tapping into this rational choice theory involves the

criminal justice system taking a tough stance on gang and gang-related crime, enacting harsher

penalties for committing crimes based on gang activity, those which involve weapons, and seek

to benefit organized crime in any form. The balance of the pros and cons would be affected by

these harsher sentences and be shifted into the favor of deterrence.

Many wonder how the above theories are connected to economic effects on juvenile

delinquency and gang activity. While on a basic level they may have little to do with financial

support of the youth and their family, once one looks deeper they will find out how these theories

are in fact related to economic situations. For example, according to the United States

Department of Labor, as of January, 2007, unemployment rates are nearly 50% lower compared

to just five years ago, however many Americans still do not have jobs. Take into account many

families with minimum wage or unsteady jobs, and one can see how in 2006 the United States

reported statistics of poverty levels of minors being nearly 22% of the population. With roughly
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49.5 million elementary, junior high school, and high school students currently enrolled in the

country (Longley, 2005), that means approximately 1.1 million of them live in families below the

poverty line. These families often suffer from increased strain and tension inside the home, are

subjected to violence and at-risk behaviors such as drug abuse and alcoholism. This translates

into youths being exposed to delinquency through their social bonds as a result of social

disorganization, ultimately resorting to the decision to take part in crime and other illegitimate

forms of succeeding. Modern gangs, with monetary holds on illegal narcotics, and other crimes

such as robbery and extortion, offer youths the chance to gain what they view to be success.

So many problems: The issues surrounding what gangs offer youth, why they join,

personal motivations, group motivations, and other factors in growing gang populations is an

extremely complex matter. Many youth involved in gangs will likely become entwined in the

criminal justice system, some will change on their own, and some will not change in time. One

thing is for certain though, and that is that proactive measures must be taken for those who are

at-risk. Building upon these criminological theories which can help explain motivations for gang

activity, and helping to alleviate the social tension which drives youth toward gang activity

should be the number one priority in helping to deter at-risk youth from entering this lifestyle.

Community centers, job skills training programs, youth sports, are all examples of programs

which help build upon these theories. Programs similar to these have already shown success in

many areas and continue to succeed. In order for our youth to have the personal strength and

viable avenues for success these programs must be instituted, and are vital in our nation’s war on

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2001 National gang youth survey.

Cornish, Derek, & Clarke, Ronald. (1986). The reasoning criminal: Rational choice prospective

on offending. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Egley, Arlen. (2002). National youth gang survey trends from 1996 to 2000. Washington DC:

Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Gutierrez, S. (2006, July 10). Street gangs using Internet for violent bragging rights. Seattle

Post- Intelligencer. Retrieved July 23, 2007, from

Hirschi, Travis. (1972). Causes of delinquency. Berkeley: University of California Press. (2007). Gang resources. Retrieved July 27, 2007, from

Lenhart, A., Madden, M., & Hitlin, P. (2005). Teens and Technology: Youth are Leading the

Transition to a fully wired and mobile nation. Retrieved July 25, 2007, from

Longley, R. (2005). U.S. School enrollment exceeds baby-boomer days. Retrieved

July 26, 2007, from

Padilla, Felix. (1992). The gang as an American enterprise. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers

University Press.

Shaw, Clifford R., & McKay, Henry D. (1972). Juvenile delinquency and urban areas: A study

of rates of delinquency in relation to different characteristics of local communities in

American cities, rev. ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Siegel, L. J., & Welsh, B. C. (2005). Juvenile delinquency: The core (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA:

Thomson Wadsworth.
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U.S. Department of Labor. (2007). Current population survey: Unemployment rate.

Wilson, Julius Wilson. (1987). The truly disadvantaged. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago


Winfree Jr, L., & Abadinsky, H. (2003). Understanding crime: Theory and practice (2nd ed.).

Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

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Author Note

This writing is focused on proactive measures to take to help deter youth from joining

any of the many gangs which populate our country. While many are already involved in the gang

life, many more are waiting in the wings, and will be apart of it even if they do not know this yet.

Also, many older members of gangs, higher ranking members, and “lifers,” are sadly not going

to change. While this may seem to be a negative assessment, it is reality. While we may help

deter gang membership, gangs are already an established group in society and will continue to be

so until their continued activities are successfully eliminated.