Theories of Gang Development


In the recent past, gang-related violence in the USA witnessed a sharp rise. One of the reasons for the rise is gang-related violence and in particular, juveniles engaging gang-related crimes. Interestingly, these juveniles do not engage in violence individually but as part of gangs. The rise of juvenile gang-related activity and violence has not gone unnoticed. Police departments in major cities in the country recorded an increased number of crimes committed by juveniles. According to statistics from the department of justice, juveniles account for 11% of all crimes committed in the USA. In addition, juveniles in gangs accounted for all homicides in Los Angeles.

In comparisons to a teenager not affiliated with gangs, juveniles as members of gangs are up to three times more likely to engage in violent crimes. Interestingly, not only are the number of members joining youth gangs on the rise, but the range of crimes, juvenile delinquents in gangs relate and engage in has increased. The rise and persistent threat of juvenile gangs seem to be most prevalent among minority groups, especially African Americans and Hispanics. These minority groups high levels have been of concern for stakeholders. However, minority disproportionate is not the only problem. With the rising cases of juvenile gang-related crime, calls for the use of adult courts in the prosecution of juveniles gained popularity as a deterrence to juvenile delinquents. Other solutions include prevention and intervention against gang activity among the youth.

Juvenile gang-related activity results in a host of both social and legal challenges. Legally, the biggest challenge, the criminal justice system faces in the prosecution of juveniles is striking a balance between rehabilitation, and the transformation of juveniles to hardened criminals with little hope of integration into society (Cladwell, 2011). In other words, how does the criminal justice system balance the society’s acceptance that juveniles should not be held accountable to the same standard as an adult visa vie that crimes ought to be punished? Increasingly, there is a large number of states allowing for the prosecution of juveniles in adult court. Advocates for the prosecution of juveniles as adults assert that the severity and frequency of crimes conducted by juveniles are high and, on the increase, respectively.

As such, adult criminal courts present the criminal justice system with a wide arsenal of possible tools in the rehabilitation of juveniles (Caldwell, 2011). In particular, the punishments meted by adult criminal courts are more severe than those available to juvenile criminal courts. Advocates of such an approach, posit that more severe punishment for juveniles would act as a deterrence. However, research into recidivism of juveniles prosecuted as adults paints a different picture. According to The Impact Prosecution Youth in the Criminal Justice System: A review of the Literature, the use of adult courts in the prosecution of juveniles culminated in zero improvements in the rate and severity of crimes by juveniles (UCLA School of Law, Juvenile Justice Project, 2010).

Juveniles in gangs are directly related to an increase in violent crimes and drug-related crimes. Gangs are synonymous with violence. When it comes to juveniles, these facts do not change. Juvenile gangs similar to adult gangs engage in gang-related violence. More often than not, such violence is characterized by the use of guns (Sanders, 2017). As such, gang-related homicides account for a sizeable number of homicides in the USA. Guns in the criminal underworld are often closely related to drugs. Drugs in gangs are both recreational, and a source of income for gangs engaged in the drug trade. The increase of juvenile gang activities has, therefore, resulted in a proportionate rise in violent crimes and drug-related vices in society.

Nexus Between Juveniles and Gang activity

Gangs are attractive to juveniles, while gangs exploit the youth’s impressionable character to their benefit. The transition from childhood to teenage hood is a tumultuous time for any person. For some, the changes include a period of rebellion that does not stop and grows to the problem. Generally, rebellious youth perceive gangs as an attractive option that accommodates their deviant behavior (Shoemaker, 2017). In addition, during the adolescent years, changes in self-identity present challenges on who an individual is.

Joining a gang is part of the youth defining who they are and what they stand for. It is an opportunity for gang members to achieve recognition for their efforts, character, and belonging outside the family. In addition, gangs offer a sense of brotherhood and fellowship. A predominant character of the gang is that its members are so closely related that they view each other as family (Shoemaker, 2017). Researchers into gang characteristics point to the companionship offered by gang members to persons who lack the same from their home environment as a unique and critical reason why many persons join gangs. Effectively, gang affiliation is an opportunity to be part of something bigger than oneself, a phenomenon that is very interesting for juveniles.

In some instances, joining a gang is an extraneous option but the only option. In rough neighborhoods in the US, the threat of violence, the threat to personal safety, and being ostracized by one’s peers forces many young people into joining gangs. This is especially true when violence in high crime neighborhoods is perpetrated by gangs. Joining a gang offers security by the numbers. Members of gangs are less likely to suffer violence from other gangs due to the risk of retaliation. In addition, in cases of an attack, relation offers an instant and accessible form of retribution.

As such, joining a gang under such conditions does offer advantages to members. In other instances, gang members are intimidated into joining the gangs. For example, persons with unique skills or access to assets that would play an important role in a gang successfully committing a crime are often recruited. Gangs are similarly, resourceful entities with access to varied resources. In low-income areas, joining a gang is an opportunity for juveniles from low-income household to earn a living usually from illegal activities.

The Minority Factor and Juvenile Gangs

Juveniles from minority groups are especially vulnerable to joining gangs. The disproportionate incarceration among the races is a fact that is well known both by the government and researchers in various fields. In particular, African Americans and Hispanics are at a higher risk of joining gangs or being processed by the criminal justice system (Tapia, 2011). Different factors greatly increase these two groups likelihood of joining a gang than other races. Firstly, minority groups in the USA are more likely to live in low-income neighborhoods that are characterized by high crime rates, gang activity, and a lack of social structure. With no alternatives to gang activity and harsh social environment, many youths opt to join gangs. The environment is, therefore, a major contributing factor to juvenile involvement in gang activity and crime.

Similarly, despite minority groups’, small population size, these groups account for a large number of juvenile incarcerations. The percentage of African Americans under the supervision of one arm of another of the criminal justice system is more than double the race’s population size (Crawford, A., & Newburn, 2013). Research into the disproportionate racial representation of minority groups in the criminal justice system exposed institutional racism in America. African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to be arrested; minorities are more likely to be found guilty of an offence and serve more severe punishment than their white counterparts for similar offenses (Phillips, 2011). Due to institutional racism, gang members of minority groups are exposed to higher levels of incarceration. This is particularly, instructive when coupled with the fact that juvenile recidivism is at 82%. Consequently, once juveniles are exposed to the criminal justice system, they are more likely to be repeat offenders than becoming rehabilitee, former criminals. Effectively, the likelihood of living in low-income neighborhoods and being a racial minority expose juveniles to crime and harsher punishments for engaging in crimes.

Theories of Gang Development

Two popular theories on gangs are the Social Disorganization Theory (SDT) and the Social Learning Theory (SLT). On the one hand, Proponents of SDT, assert that juvenile delinquents who resort to gang activity are normal people reacting to an abnormal social environment (Kubrin, 2009). According to SDT, major social events or a failure of society to provide for the needs of the youth are the main contributing factors to juvenile gang activity. For example, the presence of family conflict and violence drives the youth into seeking companionship from gangs. SLT proposes, on the other hand, propose a different assertion of gang activity. Proponents of SLT assert the need to increase pleasure and reduce pain characterizes human behavior (Akers, 2017). As such, gang affiliation and activity is a means to an end. Juveniles who join gangs desire to increase pleasure in their lives while gang activity provides an avenue for pleasure. For instance, gangs offer a sense of community and security in neighborhoods with high cases of crime.

Both SLT and SDT share similarities and difference. Common factors about the two theories include firstly, the fact that gang activity is a response to external factors. In SLT, juveniles learn to adopt gang activity from learning from others in gangs who seem to have pleasurable lives. While according to SDT, gang activity is a response to a social environment that does not meet the needs of the youth. Secondly, in both instances, the youth have lofty goals be they social, monetary, or psychological. It is these lofty goals that the youth desire to fulfill. In contrast, the difference between the two theories is the reason why juveniles join gangs. SDT posits that juveniles join gangs due to a lack of resources while in SLT, juveniles join gangs to fulfill their need for gratification. The core difference between the two theories is that one provides for an existential reason for gang activity while the other provides for a priori desire.

Prevention and Intervention

With the increasing challenge presented by gang activity in the country, a dual-pronged approach is currently in use: prevention and intervention. The effects of preventive approaches in tackling challenges are well documented. In the combat against juvenile gang activities, prevention activity is divided into two, primary and secondary prevention. Generally, preventive approaches aim to stop juveniles from joining gangs. Primary prevention is preventive measures to target the large community. These strategies aim to create an environment that shelters the youth from gang activity influence. For instance, in the Pittsburgh Youth Intervention Project developed a safety school zone program (SSZP). A safety school zone is a 1000ft radius around schools free of problem areas such as abandoned buildings, cars, or construction zones that may offer a conducive environment for gang activity. Secondly, prevention, on the other hand, targets high-risk persons such as juveniles and close stakeholders such as caregivers. For example, secondary prevention initiatives include equipping parents and teachers with the knowledge to identify changes in children that are indicative of gang activity.

A different approach to prevention is intervention. While prevention aims to stop juveniles, which are not part of gang activity from joining gang activity, intervention targets juveniles who are already engaged with gangs. Invention strategies are wide in scope, but all initiatives aim at offering the youth an alternative to gang activity. Such initiatives include rehabilitation with drug addiction, job training and placement, and legal services among many others.