Introduction

The proliferation of youth gangs since 1980 has fueled the public’s fear and magnified possible misconceptions about youth gangs. To address the mounting concern about youth gangs, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s (OJJDP’s) Youth Gang Series delves into many of the key issues related to youth gangs. The series considers issues such as gang migration, gang growth, female involvement with gangs, homicide, drugs and violence, and the needs of communities and youth who live in the presence of youth gangs.

Much of the research on gangs has ignored females or trivialized female gangs.1 Influential early studies of gangs, which for years shaped the research agenda, concentrated almost exclusively on males. The implicit message of these studies was that female gangs were unimportant. Even within the past decade an expert commented: “The notion seems to be that female gangs and their members are ‘pale imitations’ of male gangs” (Spergel, 1995, p. 90).

Given the lack of research, much of what has been written about female gangs and then reproduced in textbooks has been based on the reports of journalists and social workers and on the statements of male gang members. With the exception of a very few early studies, gang researchers did not begin to take female gangs seriously until the 1980’s, when Campbell’s (1984a) book on New York gangs appeared. Even now, there continue to be methodological problems with many reports on female gangs. This Bulletin summarizes both past and current research on female gangs and draws attention to programmatic and research needs. It considers the underlying reasons for female gang membership, assesses the delinquency and criminal activity of female gang members, examines how ethnicity and gender norms may influence female gang behavior, and discusses the long-term consequences of gang membership for females. It concludes with some proposals for future research.



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Female Gangs: A Focus on Research Juvenile Justice Bulletin March 2001