Delinquency and Criminality of Female Gang Members

Whether female gangs are seen as a serious problem depends in large part on the level of their delinquent and criminal activities and the types of offenses they commit. Unfortunately, getting definitive information about these topics is difficult. It means working through many detailed studies, often conducted in several cities that differ in important ways. The findings of these studies are not easily generalized, but some conclusions can be drawn. This section reviews three major sources of information, draws some general conclusions about female gang members’ delinquency and criminality, and then focuses on female gang members’ involvement in drug dealing.

Sources of Information About Female Gang Offending

There are three major sources of information about female gang members’ criminality and delinquency: law enforcement agency reports, surveys of at-risk youth, and field studies. These sources supplement each other and offer a basis for drawing some conclusions about female gang members’ offending.

Law enforcement agency reports. Law enforcement reports on arrests of female gang members have been compiled for several large cities. They offer the only information available about female gang members’ actual involvement with the justice system. However, because police have traditionally underarrested females, these reports may well understate the involvement of female gang members in crime (see Chesney-Lind, Shelden, and Joe, 1996; Taylor, 1993).7 Only one nationwide survey of law enforcement agencies (conducted in 1992) asked about the criminality of female gang members (Curry, Ball, and Fox, 1994) and, as noted previously, that survey probably underestimated the problem because, “as a matter of policy,” many jurisdictions did not count females as gang members (Curry and Decker, 1998). An additional problem with law enforcement agency reports as a source of information is that jurisdictions often differ in how they identify an offense as “gang related.”8

National Youth Gang Center

As part of its comprehensive, coordinated response to America’s gang problem, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) funds the National Youth Gang Center (NYGC). NYGC assists State and local jurisdictions in the collection, analysis, and exchange of information on gang-related demographics, legislation, literature, research, and promising program strategies. NYGC coordinates activities of the OJJDP Gang Consortium, a group of Federal agencies, gang program representatives, and service providers that works to coordinate gang information and programs. NYGC also provides training and technical assistance for OJJDP’s Rural Gang, Gang-Free Schools, and Gang-Free Communities Initiatives. For more information, contact:

National Youth Gang Center
P.O. Box 12729
Tallahassee, FL 32317
850–386–5356 (fax)

Surveys of at-risk youth. Surveys of at-risk adolescents (who are usually contacted at a school or social service agency) provide a different perspective. Among other questions, these surveys typically ask about respondents’ gang involvement and about whether and how often they have committed certain offenses. These surveys are the only source of information about how the delinquency of gang youth differs from that of nongang youth. However, youth answering a questionnaire may be tempted either to conceal or to exaggerate delinquency. Since most surveys are anonymous, such self-reports are difficult to verify. However, a study of middle school males in Chicago found that a little more than half (51.5 percent) of those who self-reported both delinquency and gang involvement had also been identified by the police as delinquent (Curry, in press). Almost all of the youth whom police identified as gang members also self-reported gang membership (Curry, in press). This study’s finding of a disparity between self-reported and police-reported delinquency rates may indicate that respondents exaggerated their delinquency, escaped police detection, or dropped out of the gang before the police were able to identify them.

Field studies. Field studies have a venerable tradition in gang research and continue to be a major source of insight about gang life. Many of these studies, however, do not raise the issue of criminality, and most are confined to one time and one place, making it difficult to generalize from their findings. More important, since gang females are usually difficult to reach, researchers often report on very small and/or seriously unrepresentative samples of female gang members. Although field research offers a level of understanding of individual motivation and gang social structure not available through other sources, findings from such studies must be approached critically.

Levels of Offending

Many, but not all, female gang members are involved in some kind of delinquency or criminality. Youth surveys consistently show that delinquency rates of female gang members are lower than those of male gang members but higher than those of nongang females and even nongang males (Esbensen and Huizinga, 1993; Bjerregard and Smith, 1993; Fagan, 1990). In Rochester, NY, for example, 66 percent of female gang members and 82 percent of male gang members reported involvement in at least one serious delinquent act, compared with only 7 percent of nongang females and 11 percent of nongang males (Bjerregard and Smith, 1993). By contrast, a survey of youth in three cities—Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Diego—classified 40 percent of female gang members and 15 percent of male gang members as, at most, “petty delinquents.” The three-city study also found that although 33 percent of the female gang members and 43 percent of the males reported using hard drugs, almost one-third of the females and 25 percent of the males said they were not using drugs or alcohol at all (Fagan, 1990).

Types of Offenses

In general, female gang members commit fewer violent crimes than male gang members and are more inclined to property crimes and status offenses.9 These gender patterns were found in a nationwide 1992 survey of law enforcement agencies and also in analyses of data on arrests from Honolulu, HI, and Chicago (Curry, Ball, and Fox, 1994; Chesney-Lind, Shelden, and Joe, 1996; Block et al., 1996). In Chicago, the disparity was very large. Not only were male gang members more likely than female gang members to commit serious crimes, but there were a great many more male gang members than females (and police may also have been more likely to arrest males). Between 1965 and 1994, the number of arrests of male gang members was much greater than that for females: “[t]he ratio of males to females was 15.6:1 for nonlethal violence [and] 39:1 for drug offenses,” and only 1.1 percent of offenders in gang-related homicides were female (Block et al., 1996, p. 10).

Some might conclude from these data that female gang members are not violent enough to be of concern. However, an 11-city survey of eighth graders undertaken in the mid-1990’s found that more than 90 percent of both male and female gang members reported having engaged in one or more violent acts in the previous 12 months (Esbensen and Osgood, 1997). The researchers found that 78 percent of female gang members reported being involved in gang fights, 65 percent reported carrying a weapon for protection, and 39 percent reported attacking someone with a weapon (Deschenes and Esbensen, 1999). These and similar findings prompted the authors of this study to recommend that gang prevention and intervention efforts be directed specifically at females.

Drug Dealing

Drug offenses are among the most common offenses committed by female gang members. In Los Angeles County, an analysis of lifetime arrest records of female gang members revealed that drug offenses were the most frequent cause for arrest (California Department of Justice, 1997). Special tabulations from Chicago show that between 1993 and 1996, either drug offenses or violent offenses were the most common cause for arrest of female gang members (see table).10

Gang-Related Charges for Female Arrestees in Chicago: 1993-96

Law enforcement records document but do not explain these high rates of drug arrests for female gang members. Several field studies, however, provide some related insights into female gang members’ participation in drug dealing, perhaps the most important criminal activity of the 1990’s. In the early 1980’s, Moore and Mata (1981) interviewed 85 heroin-addicted Mexican American female gang members about their experiences in dealing heroin in Los Angeles. Female dealers, who were often addicts themselves, frequently obtained their stock of heroin from their own suppliers and occasionally from relatives. A few females began to deal drugs when their dealing husbands went to prison. Most female dealers were working for someone else, although there were a few powerful female career dealers.11 The drug-dealing patterns of these women may be used—with caution—to illustrate drug-dealing patterns of other Mexican American gang members prior to the cocaine/crack epidemic that began in the mid-1980’s in most cities. By extrapolating from the Moore and Mata findings, it can be estimated that 20 percent of all Mexican American female gang members in this period may have dealt heroin at some time during their careers.

A 1990’s study (Moore and Hagedorn, 1996) of African American and Latina female gang members in Milwaukee documents a very different situation. Many more females were dealing drugs, although they were less likely to do so than were males. About one-half of the female gang members and three-quarters of the male gang members had sold cocaine at some time in their lives. The proportion was higher for Latina females (72 percent) and Latino males (81 percent) than for African American females (31 percent) and males (69 percent). In at least one African American gang neighborhood, two drug houses were run independently by females whose male relatives were in a gang.

These findings indicate that, by the 1990’s, drug dealing was much more common among female gang members in Milwaukee than it had been among female gang members in Los Angeles a decade earlier. A 1990’s study in San Francisco found that drug dealing in an African American gang was important enough to cause a rift between male and female gang members. Female members became so dissatisfied with the income they were receiving from male dealers that they withdrew from the gang and went into business for themselves (Lauterback, Hansen, and Waldorf, 1992). A later report on this female gang contrasted its complete control over drug dealing with the less extensive or nonexistent drug-dealing activities of females in two other gangs: a nearby Mexican American gang, whose female members were permitted to deal as independent individuals, and an immigrant Salvadoran gang, whose female members were subservient to the male members and were not allowed to deal drugs (Brotherton, 1996). Female gang members (mostly African American) in Columbus, OH, also reported being explicitly debarred from selling drugs (Miller, 1998).

Taylor (1993) presents the most extensive examination to date of drug dealing by female gang members. He followed up his study of Detroit’s dangerous “corporate gangs”—that is, gangs organized for “financial gain by criminal action” (1993, p. 19)—with a companion book on female gangs. Taylor traces the female presence in Detroit’s gangs back to the 1950’s, but it was not until the 1970’s, with the growing presence of hard drugs and the emergence of more criminally oriented (“commercial”) gangs, that females began to play a more active role. By the 1980’s, corporate gangs dominated Detroit’s street economy, and by the 1990’s, females were involved in both autonomous (all-female) and gender-integrated selling crews. Taylor’s study leaves little doubt that the position of females in the drug-dealing business has changed, contemporaneous with the devastating collapse of job opportunities in Detroit’s inner city and the parallel collapse of neighborhood social structures.12 Taylor’s historical perspective provides a context for other studies discussed in this Bulletin. As drug dealing became more common among gang members, autonomous female dealers occasionally emerged. There is also a great deal of local variation, as shown by the contrasting roles of Latinas in Los Angeles (Moore and Mata, 1981), Milwaukee (Moore and Hagedorn, 1996), and San Francisco (Brotherton, 1996).

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