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Summary

Almost one-half (44 percent) of all youth gangs in 1998 were in cities with populations of 25,000 or more. Nearly two-thirds of all gang members (62 percent) were in these cities.

In 1998, 48 percent of all respondents experienced youth 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 percent to 93 percent).

In 1998, there were an estimated 28,700 youth 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).

Between 1997 and 1998, the estimated number of youth gangs decreased by 2 percent in large cities, 1 percent in suburban counties, 13 percent in small cities, and 9 percent in rural counties. During the same period, the estimated number of gang members remained virtually unchanged in large cities and decreased 3 percent in small cities and 15 percent in suburban counties. Counter to the overall trend for 1997–98, the number of gang members increased 3 percent in rural counties.

In small cities, the number of youth gangs and gang members increased from 1996 to 1997 and decreased from 1997 to 1998. A mixed pattern was seen in rural counties, where the number of gangs decreased but the number of gang members increased in both 1997 and 1998.

From 1996 to 1998, the largest drop in the number of youth 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 1996–98, the number of gang members increased 43 percent in rural counties and 3 percent in small cities.

Almost one-half (44 percent) of all youth gangs in 1998 were in cities with populations of 25,000 or more. Nearly two-thirds of all gang members (62 percent) were in these cities.

In 1998, most respondents believed their youth gang problem was staying about the same (42 percent), 28 percent believed the problem was getting worse, and 30 percent believed it was getting better. Compared with 1997, more 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.

The age distribution of youth gang members in 1998 was as follows: younger than 15 (11 percent), 15–17 (29 percent), 18–24 (46 percent), and older than 24 (14 percent). Respondents estimated that 60 percent of the gang members in their jurisdictions were adults (age 18 or older). This represents a significant shift in the age of gang members since 1996, when respondents estimated that exactly one-half of their gang members were adults. Thus, it appears that youth gangs may be aging.

Adult gang members were far more prevalent in large cities and suburban counties than in small cities and rural counties. The South stands out as the region in which juvenile gang members were most prevalent in both small cities (76 percent) and large cities (48 percent). Adults were most predominant in large cities in the West (67 percent).

Nationally in 1998, 92 percent of youth 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 and were most prevalent in the largest jurisdictions. The South reported the largest number of female-dominated gangs.

Serious gang crimes are no longer confined to large cities.

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.

Hispanic was the predominant racial/ethnic group among youth gang members in large cities (47 percent of all gang members), suburban counties (47 percent), and small cities (46 percent), and African American was the predominant racial/ ethnic group in rural counties (36 percent). African American gang members were predominant in the Midwest and Northeast, and Hispanic gang members were predominant in the South and West.

Caucasian gang members were most prevalent in small cities in the Midwest (49 percent) and Northeast (47 percent), were rather prevalent in all small cities (30 percent) and all rural counties (27 percent), and were a majority in Midwestern rural counties (55 percent).

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). The proportion of mixed gangs was larger in the Midwest than in any other region.

Gang-related homicides are a serious problem. Nearly one-half (45 percent) of cities with populations of 25,000 or more that experienced a gang problem during the 3-year period 1996–98 reported a gang homicide in at least 1 year. About one-half (49 percent) of the cities that consistently indicated gang problems reported decreases in gang homicides over the 3-year period, 15 percent reported they stayed the same, and 36 percent reported an increase.

Respondents were asked to estimate the proportion of youth gang members who engaged in certain types of serious and 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 members’ 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 of respondents said gang members in their jurisdiction used firearms in assault crimes “often” or “sometimes.”

The survey revealed significant regional differences in the prevalence of gang member involvement in various serious and violent crimes. Compared with national averages, gang members in the Northeast had higher than average involvement in robbery, aggravated assault, and drug sales. Gang members in the Midwest were involved at a level higher than the national average in only one offense: drug sales. Gang members in the West had the highest level of all regions in motor vehicle theft and the lowest level of all regions in drug sales. Gang members in the South had much higher than average involvement in burglary/breaking and entering (highest level of all regions) and high levels for all other offenses.

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. Drug gangs were far more prevalent in the Northeast (60 percent of all youth gangs), followed by the Midwest (46 percent). In the West, where gang drug trafficking has historically been viewed as very prevalent, drug gangs surprisingly 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 who have been in prison. The most common response was “somewhat” (39 percent). Nearly one-half (49 percent) said either very much or somewhat, 10 percent said very much, and 13 percent said not at all. 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. Task forces 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 task forces were some other government entity (43 percent) and schools (42 percent), followed by community-based organizations or citizen groups (only 19 percent).

NYGC will continue to analyze these data, and subsequent surveys will gather additional information in areas that require further examination. Other researchers also will have access to the NYGC database for analysis.

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1998 Youth Gang Survey
OJJDP Summary
November 2000