Stereotypes Versus Modern Youth Gangs

Youth gang members have long been stereotyped as young, inner-city, lower-class, ghetto or barrio, minority, sociopathic males (Klein, 1995a; Spergel, 1995). Traditionally, gangs have been viewed as racially and ethnically segregated, somewhat organized, and authoritatively controlled fighting groups (Miller, 1992). The predominant popular stereotype of youth gangs was modified significantly by the findings of a California study (Skolnick et al., 1988) more than a decade ago (see Klein, 1995a). These researchers contended that the two major Los Angeles gangs, the Crips and Bloods, had become highly organized and entrepreneurial and were expanding their drug trafficking operations to markets in other cities. Where drug markets appeared, so did violent crime. The typical gang member came to be viewed as a violent "superpredator" who repeatedly engaged in random violence and could not be reformed (DiIulio, 1996).

The distinguishing features of youth gangs and their members are still characterized mainly by popular media images based on traditional stereotypes and by public perceptions of the modern-day gangs conveyed in the California study, rather than by scientific knowledge. Indeed, some jurisdictions may be adapting a view of well-publicized Los Angeles gang problems to their own jurisdictions, which may not apply (Miethe and McCorkle, 1997a). Moreover, recent studies challenge the stereotypes of gangs and gang members (see especially, Best and Hutchinson, 1996; Decker, Bynum, and Weisel, 1998; Fleisher, 1995, 1998; Miethe and McCorkle, 1997b).

Gangs typically are not highly organized, at least not those in cities with emerging gang problems. Decker and colleagues (1998) compared the two gangs that police in Chicago, IL, and San Diego, CA, reported were most highly organized. They found that the Chicago gangs were far more organized than the San Diego gangs, but that "levels of organization are not necessarily linked to increased involvement in crime" (Decker, Bynum, and Weisel, 1998:408). Decker and colleagues' observation that the San Diego gangs were disorganized mirrored Sanders' (1994) deduction. The same conclusion was reached by others who studied gangs in emerging gang cities such as Denver, CO, and Cleveland and Columbus, OH (Huff, 1996, 1998); Kansas City, MO (Fleisher, 1998); Milwaukee, WI (Hagedorn, 1988); Pittsburgh, PA (Klein, 1995a); San Francisco, CA (Waldorf, 1993); Seattle, WA (Fleisher, 1995); and St. Louis, MO (Decker and Van Winkle, 1996). A new study also questions the territorial scope of large gangs in one of the most chronic gang cities. Even the largest gangs in Chicago are criminally active in a very small percentage of the city's geographical area (Block and Jones, 1999).

Other studies, particularly in emerging gang areas, have produced findings to counter the traditional stereotypes of youth gangs (Howell, 2000):

  • The gangs, drugs, and violence connection appears to apply more to adult drug and criminal gangs than to youth gangs.

  • The seemingly intractable connection of gangs, drugs, and violence is not as strong among youth gangs as suggested by traditional stereotypes.

  • Relatively more young adult males than juveniles appear to be involved in the most criminal youth gangs, and they appear to be disproportionately involved in serious and violent crimes.

  • It is not as difficult for adolescents to resist gang pressures as commonly believed. In most instances, adolescents can refuse to join gangs without reprisal.

  • Gang members (especially marginal members) typically can leave the gang without serious consequences.

  • At least in emerging gang areas, most adolescents do not remain in gangs for long periods of time, suggesting that members can be drawn away from gangs with attractive alternatives.

  • Contemporary legends about gangs, especially initiation rites,26 are without scientific basis.

  • Modern gangs make less use of symbols, including gang names, clothing, and traditional initiation rites, than gangs of the past, and the meaning of their graffiti is sometimes murky or unclear (e.g., youth may use a mixture of different gang symbols).

  • Modern youth gangs are based less on territory than gangs of the past.

  • Drug franchising is not the principal driving force behind gang migration. The most common reasons to migrate (movement of members from one city to another) are social considerations, including family moves to improve the quality of life and to be near relatives and friends.

  • More adolescents were members of gangs in the 1990's than in the past.

  • More gangs are in suburban areas, small towns, and rural areas than in the past (see tables 4 and 5 and figure 3).

  • There is more gang presence in schools than in the 1980's.

  • There is more gang presence in detention and correctional facilities than in the past.

  • Prison gangs have grown over the past two decades.

Table 4. Average Year of Gang Problem Onset, by Area Type
Area Type

Large city
Suburban county
Small city
Rural county

Average Year of Onset


    Source: National Youth Gang Center, 1999.

Table 5. Average Year of Gang Problem Onset, by Region


Average Year of Onset


    Source: National Youth Gang Center, 1999.

Figure 3. Percentage of Jurisdictions Reporting
Active Youth Gangs in 1998, by Area Type

Figure 3
                        Source: Moore and Cook, 1999.

Members of modern gangs, especially in emerging gang areas, also have different characteristics than members in stereotypical gangs (Howell, 2000):

  • Many members of modern adolescent gangs are "good kids" from respectable families with college-educated parents.

  • White gang members are more prevalent in adolescent gangs than in the past (see figure 4).

  • Females are more prevalent in adolescent gangs than previously reported.

  • Gangs in suburban, small town, and rural areas have different characteristics than gangs in large cities. They include more females, Caucasians, and younger youth, and more have mixed membership.

  • About one-third of all youth gangs have a significant mixture of racial and ethnic groups (see figure 4 for a breakdown of the race/ethnicity of gang members).

Figure 4. Race/Ethnicity of Gang Members
(Weighted for Number of Gang Members), 1998

Figure 4
                        Source: Moore and Cook, 1999.

Despite these changes, youth gangs remain dangerous. Their members often engage in violence and frequently carry weapons. In an 11-city survey of eighth grade gang members, more than 90 percent of males and females had engaged in violent behavior (Deschenes and Esbensen, 1999). According to the 1998 National Youth Gang Survey, 49 percent of all respondents said that gang members used firearms in assault crimes either often or sometimes (Moore and Cook, 1999). Only 15 percent of all respondents said firearms were not used at all. Youth gangs also are beginning to age. In 1996, law enforcement agencies estimated that approximately half of their gang members were juveniles (under age 18) and half were young adults (18 and older) (National Youth Gang Center, 1999). In 1998, approximately 60 percent of the gang members were estimated to be young adults and only 40 percent were juveniles (Moore and Cook, 1999) (see figure 5). Should this trend continue, youth gangs could become more violent because it appears that adult gang members engage in more serious and violent crimes than juvenile gang members (Howell and Gleason, 1999; National Youth Gang Center, in press; Parsons and Meeker, 1999; Wiebe, Meeker, and Vila, in press).

Figure 5. Age of Gang Members
(Weighted for Number of Gang Members), 1998

Figure 5
                        Source: Moore and Cook, 1999.

26 Debunked initiation rites include "the slasher under the car" (gang initiates hide under cars waiting to attack their victims) and "flicked headlights" (initiates drive at night without their headlights on; the first passing vehicle to flash its headlights becomes the target).


Youth Gang Programs and Strategies
OJJDP Summary
August 2000