Survey Methods (continued)

The Drug Trafficking Context

Population Size. Gang involvement in drug trafficking (member sales and gang control of drug distribution) was spread throughout various population categories, but gangs were estimated to control slightly more of the drug distribution in large cities than in suburban areas, small cities, towns, and rural counties. The prevalence of gang member involvement in drug sales was approximately equal in suburban areas, small cities, towns, rural counties, and the largest cities, and none of the differences among population categories were statistically significant for either type of drug trafficking.

Gang member involvement in drug sales and gang control of drug distribution were substantial in small cities, towns, and rural counties with populations under 25,000. Nearly one-third of respondents in these jurisdictions said gang members accounted for two-thirds or more of all drug sales. Nearly one-fourth of respondents in these areas said gangs controlled more than one-half of the drug distribution. Overall, population is not a factor in the presence or absence of drug trafficking; gang drug trafficking occurs in populations of all sizes.

Geographical Region. Both gang member involvement in drug sales and gang control of drug distribution varied significantly across the four major geographic regions.18 The average proportions of drug sales estimated to involve gang members were as follows: Northeast, 41 percent; Midwest, 47 percent; South, 45 percent; and West, 38 percent. Gang control of drug distribution was significantly lower in the Northeast (10 percent) than in the other three regions: Midwest, 29 percent; South, 35 percent; and West, 25 percent.

The prevalence of particular racial/ethnic groups also varied significantly among the four geographic regions on both drug trafficking measures. With respect to drug sales, the greatest magnitude of variation was reported for Hispanics. While they represented 58 percent of the gang members in the West, they represented only 17 percent of gang members in the Midwest. Thus, Hispanics were greatly overrepresented in the West. In contrast with their national average within gangs (34 percent), African Americans were overrepresented in the Midwest (36 percent) and South (49 percent) regions and greatly underrepresented in the West (12 percent). Compared with their national average (29 percent), Caucasians were somewhat overrepresented in the Northeast (31 percent) and Midwest (38 percent) and underrepresented in the West (19 percent). Almost identical patterns were observed for gang control of drug distribution.

Year of gang problem onset. The onset year of gang problems in jurisdictions significantly affected both drug sales and control of drug distribution by gangs (see table 5). In general, larger proportions of drug sales were attributed to gang members in "older" gang localities than in "newer" ones. However, gang members were not as extensively involved in drug sales in the oldest gang jurisdictions (in which gang problems began before 1980) as in jurisdictions in which onset occurred between 1981 and 1990. Jurisdictions reporting onset between 1981 and 1985 show the highest level of gang member involvement in drug sales. Jurisdictions in which gang problems emerged after 1985 show lower levels of gang member involvement in drug sales, and these levels decrease in each subsequent time period of onset through 1995-96. Thus, gang members in "newer" gang problem jurisdictions were much less likely than those in "older" gang problem jurisdictions to be involved in drug sales.

Onset year had an even stronger effect on gang control of drug distribution (see table 6).19 The peak gang problem onset period for gang control of drug distribution was 1981 to 1985, after which gang control of distribution declined in each subsequent time period for gang problem onset through 1995-96. The average percentages shown in table 6 indicate that gangs control significantly less of the drug distribution in "newer" gang problem jurisdictions than in "older" ones.

Period of Gang Problem Onset, by Average Percentage of Drug Sales Involving Gang Mambers (Unweighted) Period of Gang Problem Onset, by Average Percentage of Drug Distribution Controlled/Managed by Gangs (Unweighted)

The Drug Sales-Distribution Connection

The overlap between gang member involvement in drug sales and gang control of drug distribution was significant, as expected. In the 15 jurisdictions that reported gang control of all drug distribution, every respondent reported that gang members were responsible for two-thirds or more of all drug sales. Conversely, when the reported percentage of drug sales involving gang members dropped to one-third or less, 80 percent of respondents said gangs controlled less than one-fourth of the drug distribution. In other words, if gang members are involved in either drug sales or drug distribution, then they (or gangs in their jurisdiction) are likely to be involved in both activities. Similarly, in jurisdictions in which gang members are not actively involved in drug sales, gangs tend not to be actively involved in control of drug distribution.

The Gang, Drugs, and Crime Connection

Drug trafficking and criminal involvement. In another analysis (National Youth Gang Center, 1999a, pp. 34-35), gang members tended to be involved in larceny/theft, followed by aggravated assault, motor vehicle theft, and burglary, in that order. Gang members were not reported to be extensively involved in robbery; almost half of the respondents reported "low" degrees of gang member involvement in this offense.

Figure 1 shows the degree to which gang members were reported to be involved in specific criminal offenses given their level of involvement in drug sales. The five measured offenses were aggravated assault, robbery, larceny/theft, burglary/breaking and entering, and motor vehicle theft. The bar graphs show the degree to which gang members were reported to be involved in the five offenses at four levels (high, medium, low, and not involved) for each of three categories representing the proportion of drug sales involving gang members (high, medium, and low). For example, figure 1 shows that in jurisdictions in which gang member involvement in drug sales was estimated to be "high," 49 percent of gang members were involved in aggravated assault to a "high" degree, 35 percent to a "medium" degree, and 16 percent to a "low" degree.

A similar pattern was evident for the remaining four offenses. As gang member involvement in drug sales increased, the degree of gang member involvement in robbery, larceny/theft, burglary/breaking and entering, and motor vehicle theft increased significantly at the high level of criminal involvement. In jurisdictions reporting a high level of gang member involvement in drug sales, an average of 49 percent of all gang members were estimated to be involved to a high degree in aggravated assault and larceny/theft. In the same jurisdictions, 40 percent of gang members were estimated to be involved to a high degree in motor vehicle theft, 39 percent in burglary/breaking and entering, and 30 percent in robbery. Similar crime patterns were observed for jurisdictions reporting a high degree of gang control of drug distribution.

The overlapping percentages in figure 1 do not clearly reveal how changes in each measure—drug trafficking and involvement in other crimes—are affected by changes in the other. Separate analyses for gang member drug sales and gang control of drug distribution (reported in Howell and Gleason, 1998) showed significant correlations between the two measures of drug trafficking and other crimes. The correlation was strongest for robbery, followed by aggravated assault, then other offenses. Howell and Gleason’s analysis also showed very high correlations between various crimes other than drug trafficking. In fact, the strongest correlations were between robbery and aggravated assault, followed by robbery and motor vehicle theft, then robbery and either drug sales or drug distribution (in all jurisdictions that responded to the drug trafficking questions).20

When gang members are involved in one form of criminal activity, they are likely to be involved in other types of crimes. As Klein (1995) observed, involvement in "cafeteria-style" (widely varied) crime is typical in youth gangs. Studies of gang members within large adolescent samples show that gang members engage in a wide variety of offenses besides drug trafficking,21 including drug and alcohol use, public disorder, property damage, theft, extortion, robbery, carrying illegal guns, and many other general acts of delinquency. Fighting with other gangs is also common. Gang members in an 11-city survey of middle school students said that the most characteristic feature of their gang was fighting with other gangs (Esbensen, Deschenes, and Winfree, in press). Multivariate analyses22 of the relationships between gang member involvement in drug trafficking and criminal offenses will be required, because other variables, such as intergang conflicts, may be influencing gang involvement in criminal offenses.

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Youth Gang Drug Trafficking Juvenile Justice Bulletin   ·  December 1999