Summary and Discussion

Law enforcement agency responses to the National Youth Gang Survey regarding the year of onset of gang problems revealed a cascading pattern (of earlier to later onset) from the largest to the smallest localities and from urban to rural areas. The analysis reported in this Bulletin contrasts gangs in earlier and later onset jurisdictions. As observed by law enforcement agencies, gangs in newer gang problem jurisdictions were qualitatively different from traditional gangs in jurisdictions where gang problems began much earlier. Gangs in the late-onset jurisdictions had younger members, slightly more females, and more of a racial/ethnic mixture; were less involved in drug trafficking; and were less involved in violent crimes, including homicides. The later onset jurisdictions were most likely to be in rural counties, smaller cities, and suburban counties with populations of less than 50,000.

Although Caucasians were the predominant racial/ethnic group in later onset (1991 or later) localities, racial/ethnic mixing may be a defining characteristic of such gangs. In the 1998 National Youth Gang Survey (NYGC, 2000), respondents estimated that the membership of more than one-third of their gangs consisted of a significant mixture of two or more racial/ethnic groups. Smaller cities had the largest proportion of these mixed gangs (54 percent of all gangs in smaller cities), followed by suburban counties (45 percent), and rural counties (42 percent). Larger cities had the smallest proportion of mixed gangs (32 percent). Another study—an 11-city survey conducted by Esbensen and colleagues (1999)—found that gender mixing also was common: 92 percent of eighth grade gang members said that both boys and girls belonged to their gangs. It is interesting to note that the overwhelming majority of sites from which Esbensen and colleagues drew their sample reported fairly late onset of gang problems (1982–95) in the National Youth Gang Survey.

The National Youth Gang Survey results reported in this Bulletin are particularly striking with respect to gang member involvement in criminal activity. As shown in figures 1–4 (Figure 1, Figure 2, Figure 3, and Figure 4), gang members in the earliest onset localities not only were involved in property crimes but also were very likely to be involved in violent crimes (homicide, aggravated assault, robbery, and use of firearms). In contrast, gang members in the latest onset localities were most likely to be involved in the property crimes of burglary/breaking and entering and larceny/ theft, although they were far less likely to be involved in motor vehicle theft.

As shown in table 7, gang member involvement in drug trafficking was lower in the later onset jurisdictions than in the earlier onset jurisdictions. However, in the later onset jurisdictions, the level of individual member involvement in drug sales was greater than the overall level of gang control of drug distribution (see also Howell and Gleason, 1999).

It may be that the gangs in the later onset jurisdictions are in the early stages of development, from the standpoint of gang criminal involvement. Gangs in these jurisdictions tended to be far more involved in property crimes and individual drug sales than in violent crimes or drug distribution.

Do gangs move through patterns of offending as they mature? Do they progress from involvement in property crimes to involvement in violent crimes? A few gang studies have produced evidence of this kind of progression (Huff, 1998; Palacios, 1996; Venkatesh, 1996). Studies of gang members also offer evidence that gang involvement increases the likelihood of self-reported violence during adolescence (Esbensen and Huizinga, 1993; Hill et al., 1996; Thornberry et al., 1993). Individuals who belonged to gangs for more than a year were much more likely to be involved in serious and violent offenses than gang members who belonged for a year or less (Hill et al., 1996; Thornberry et al., in press). This finding may be related to the increased bonding of individual members to their gangs (Lynskey et al., 2000). In addition, Curry (2000) found evidence of continuity between being involved in a gang at a young age and having a police record later. The intervention-related implications of these research findings, which suggest that as gangs mature the criminal involvement of their members grows more serious, are discussed below.

David Starbuck (a former supervisor of the Kansas City, MO, Police Department’s Gang Unit) and colleagues characterize many of the newer gangs as having a “hybrid” gang culture (Starbuck, Howell, and Lindquist, 2001). By this they mean that many of the gangs that have sprung up relatively recently throughout the country may not follow the same traditional rules or methods of operation as their predecessors from Los Angeles, CA, or Chicago, IL. For example, these newer gangs may adopt symbols from both Chicago- and Los Angeles-based gangs, they may not have an allegiance to a traditional “color,” they may change the gang name, members may change their affiliation from one gang to another or belong to more than one gang, and two or more gangs may suddenly merge and form a new gang. Starbuck and colleagues contend that this hybrid gang culture is more prevalent in communities that had no gang problem prior to the 1980s or 1990s.

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Modern-Day Youth Gangs Juvenile Justice Bulletin June 2002