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Executive Summary

The 1995 National Youth Gang Survey was the first annual survey to examine youth gangs conducted by the National Youth Gang Center (NYGC). The sample for this pilot survey consisted of 4,120 law enforcement agencies and included many agencies that reported gang problems in previous surveys. Approximately 83 percent of the survey recipients responded. Although the 1995 survey was the most extensive national gang survey up to that time and provided valuable baseline data, it was not entirely representative of the Nation as a whole.

The 1996, 1997, and 1998 NYGC surveys were administered to a representative sample of U.S. city and county jurisdictions. The same jurisdictions were examined in the three surveys. The survey sample consisted of the following:

  • All police departments serving cities with populations of 25,000 or more.

  • All suburban county police and sheriff’s departments.

  • A randomly selected representative sample of police departments serving cities with populations between 2,500 and 24,999.

  • A randomly selected representative sample of rural county police and sheriff’s departments.

A total of 2,629 agencies responded to the survey in 1996, an 87-percent response rate (NYGC, 1999a). The response rate for the 1997 survey was 92 percent (NYGC, 1999b), and the response rate for 1998 was 88 percent. Nearly three-fourths (73.7 percent) of the universe of cities with populations of 25,000 or more surveyed each year responded to all three surveys, and 99.1 percent responded to one or more of the three surveys.

The results of the 1998 survey are presented in this Summary. Like the 1996 and 1997 surveys, the 1998 survey was designed to provide basic information on the severity and scope of youth gang problems and the characteristics of youth gangs in the United States. A common set of questions is asked in each survey or in alternate years. In addition, respondents are queried each year on special topics of interest to policymakers, practitioners, and researchers. Questions asked in each survey include basic information such as number of gangs, number of gang members, and gang involvement in criminal activity. As in 1996, questions were asked in the 1998 survey regarding the demographic characteristics of gang members, including gender, age, and race/ethnicity. Special topics in the 1998 survey included the impact of gang-involved adults returning from prison, use of firearms in assaults, agency participation in interagency task forces, and youth gang characteristics.

Some key survey findings follow.

  • In 1998, 48 percent of all respondents experienced gang activity, down about 3 percent from 1997 and about 5 percent from 1996, when 53 percent of all respondents reported active youth gangs.

  • The modest decline between 1997 and 1998 in jurisdictions reporting gangs was 2 percent for large cities, 6 percent for suburban counties, 1 percent for small cities, and 3 percent for rural counties. Most of the nationwide decrease in jurisdictions reporting gangs occurred in large suburban counties (population of 250,000 or more).

  • All cities with populations of 250,000 or more reported gangs in all 3 years (1996–98), and the percentage of respondents in cities with populations between 100,000 and 249,999 reporting gangs increased slightly from 1996 to 1998 (from 91 to 93 percent).

  • In 1998, there were an estimated 28,700 gangs and 780,200 gang members active in the United States (down from an estimated 30,500 gangs and 816,000 gang members in 1997 and 31,000 gangs and 846,000 gang members in 1996). From 1996 to 1998, the estimated number of gangs and gang members in the United States decreased modestly (7 percent and 8 percent, respectively).

  • The largest drop from 1996 to 1998 in the number of gangs occurred in suburban counties (–24 percent), followed by rural counties (–13 percent). The largest drop in the number of gang members occurred in suburban counties (–21 percent), followed by large cities (–6 percent).

  • Counter to the nationwide trend for 1996 to 1998, the number of gang members increased 43 percent in rural counties and 3 percent in small cities.

  • In 1998, most respondents (42 percent) believed their youth gang problem was “staying about the same,” 28 percent believed the problem was “getting worse,” and 30 percent believed it was “getting better.” Compared with 1997 respondents, more 1998 respondents perceived that their gang problem was getting better. Nevertheless, more than two-thirds of 1998 respondents believed their gang problem was either staying about the same or getting worse.

  • In 1998, respondents estimated that 60 percent of their gang members were adults (age 18 or older). This represents a significant shift from 1996 (the last time respondents were asked about gang member demographics), when respondents estimated that exactly one-half of gang members were adults. Thus, it appears that youth gangs may be aging.

  • Nationally in 1998, 92 percent of gang members were male and 8 percent were female. A total of 171 jurisdictions reported female-dominated (more than 50 percent female) gangs. Female-dominated gangs represented 1.76 percent of all gangs.

  • Nationally in 1998, 46 percent of all gang members were Hispanic, 34 percent were African American, 12 percent were Caucasian, 6 percent were Asian, and 2 percent were of other race/ethnicity. From 1996 to 1998, the proportion of Hispanic and Asian gang members increased slightly, and the proportion of Caucasian and African American gang members decreased slightly.

  • Respondents estimated that more than one-third (36 percent) of their youth gangs had a significant mixture of two or more racial/ethnic groups. The largest proportion of these “mixed gangs” was in small cities, where they represented 54 percent of all gangs, and the smallest proportion was in large cities (32 percent).

  • Respondents were asked to estimate the proportion of youth gang members who engaged in certain specific types of serious and/or violent crimes. The percentage of respondents reporting involvement of “most or all” gang members was largest for drug sales (27 percent), followed by larceny/ theft (17 percent), burglary/breaking and entering (13 percent), aggravated assault (12 percent), motor vehicle theft (11 percent), and robbery (3 percent).

  • Serious gang crimes are no longer confined to large cities. Gang member involvement in aggravated assault and robbery was greatest in large cities, but their involvement in motor vehicle theft, larceny/theft, and drug sales was greatest in suburban counties. Surprisingly, the largest proportion of gang members involved in burglary/breaking and entering was reported in rural counties, followed closely by suburban counties, then large cities. Gang members in small cities and rural counties also were extensively involved in drug sales and property crimes.

  • Nationwide, more than one-half (53 percent) of respondents said gang members in their jurisdiction used firearms in assault crimes “often” or “sometimes.” Only 16 percent said their gang members did not use firearms in conjunction with assaults. Firearms were used far more often in large cities and suburban counties than in small cities and rural counties. Even in rural counties, one-third of respondents said firearms were used often or sometimes.

  • One-third (34 percent) of all youth gangs were drug gangs (i.e., gangs organized specifically for the purpose of trafficking in drugs). Unexpectedly, drug gangs were most prevalent in rural counties, where 38 percent of the youth gangs were said to be drug gangs. In the West, where gang drug trafficking has historically been viewed as very prevalent, drug gangs were less prevalent than in any other region (only 18 percent of all gangs).

  • Respondents were asked how much their jurisdiction’s youth gang problem has been affected in the past few years by the return of gang-involved adults from prison. The most common response was “somewhat.” Nearly one-half (49 percent) said either “very much” or “somewhat.” Suburban counties were most affected, and jurisdictions in the West reported a far greater impact of gang-involved adults returning from prison than was reported by jurisdictions in other regions.

  • Respondents in gang problem jurisdictions were asked whether their agency participated in a formal multiagency task force or collaborative effort that focused on youth gang problems as a major concern. About one-half (49 percent) of all respondents said yes. These were most prevalent in large cities across the country and in all types of jurisdictions in the West.

  • Nearly all task forces involved only law enforcement and/or other criminal justice agencies. In 9 out of 10 cases, respondents reported linkage with another police or sheriff’s department and some other criminal justice agency. The next most common participants in such task forces were some other government entity (43 percent) and schools (42 percent), followed by community-based organizations or citizen groups (only 19 percent).
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1998 Youth Gang Survey
OJJDP Summary
November 2000