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Youth Gangs

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Our community is not the only community currently having gang problems. Many small towns and rural areas are experiencing gang problems for the first time. In small communities, citizens jump to the mistaken conclusion that gangs are present. This occurs because small groups of delinquents are common, even in the smallest rural communities. Juveniles enjoy hanging out together, and the reality is that juvenile delinquency is often committed in groups. The visibility of these groups, hanging out in shopping malls and on street corners and their frequent problem behavior may suggest some gang involvement. Another factor that may lead to the mistaken conclusion that a gang problem exists is that our youth culture appears to admire and emulate gang culture. Certain clothing styles and colors commonly worn by gang members have become faddish in the popular youth culture. If you watch MTV for a short period of time, you can see the popularity of what once were considered exclusively to be gang symbols. Open up any magazine and see how hip-hop has influenced the fashion industry.

Even if local youths are displaying gang symbols such as the colors of big city gangs, this alone does not necessarily signify a 'real' gang problem. Local groups of youths often imitate big city gangs, generally in an attempt to enhance their self-image or to seek popularity and acceptance among other juveniles. Although community officials or residents occasionally may encounter random signs of gang activity in an area such as graffiti, arrest of a non-local gang member, or other isolated incidents, this is not necessarily indicative of a new and dangerous gang problem that is permanent.

In most cases, the gang problem is short-lived and dissolves as quickly as it develops. Most often, this is mainly because small towns and rural areas do not have the necessary population to sustain gangs and any disruption such as arrest or members dropping out may weaken the gang. For prolonged survival, gangs must be able to attract new members to replace short-term members and older youths who typically leave gangs toward the end of adolescence. Research across a number of cities with typically longer-standing gang problems has found considerable movement in and out of gangs. For instance, approximately half of the youth who join leave the gang within a year (Egley, 2004).

The more long-term gang members are also a part of a community's emerging gang problem and usually prove to be the most serious part. Their commitment to the gang as a permanent lifestyle change will forever negatively affect the community.

An often-overlooked feature of youth gangs is that they are a symptom of deeper community problems, not an isolated problem (Huff, 2002). Gangs and related gang problems tend to emerge from larger social and economic problems in the community and are as much a consequence as they are a contributing factor. One noted gang researcher has outlined four community conditions that often precede the transition from typical adolescent groupings to established youth gangs (Moore, 1998). First, conventional socialization, such as families and schools, are ineffective and alienate youngsters. Under these conditions, conventional adult supervision is also absent. Second, the adolescents must have a great deal of free time that is not consumed by other healthy social development roles. Third, for the gang to become established, members must have limited access to appealing career lines or good adult jobs. Finally, the young people must have a place to congregate, such as a well-defined neighborhood.

The 1980's saw an increase in youth gang violence with the rise of the crack cocaine epidemic. The public linked these two developments together as one causing or affecting the other. This problem seemed to be evaluated solely by public perception rather than scientific knowledge and the relationships among youth gangs, drugs, and violence are more often talked about than understood.

In The Youth Gangs, Drugs, and Violence Connection, James Howell and Scott Decker add to our understanding of the interrelationships of these factors and address important questions such as the following: "Is drug trafficking a main activity of youth gangs?" "Is drug trafficking a major cause of violence in youth gangs?" "Are there other important sources of youth gang violence?" There are critical distinctions between drug gangs and street gangs that further enhance our understanding of the gang phenomenon, as does the exploration of the connections between youth gangs and adult criminal organizations and the role of firearms in gang violence.

The abundance of youth gangs since 1980 has fueled the public's fear and magnified possible misconceptions about youth gangs. To address the mounting concern about youth gangs, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention's (OJJDP's) Youth Gang Series delves into many of the key issues related to youth gangs. The series considers issues such as gang migration, gang growth, female involvement with gangs, homicide, drugs and violence, and the needs of communities and youth who live in the presence of youth gangs. The popular image of youth gangs ties them directly to drugs and violent crime (Klein, 1995). How interrelated are youth gangs, drugs, and violent crime? Is drug trafficking a main activity of youth gangs? Is drug trafficking a main cause of violence in youth gangs or only a correlate? Are there other important sources of gang violence? These are all good questions that we need to address.

Changing demographics in some small towns and rural areas may contribute to the emergence or escalation of gang problems. This may be related to the immigration of newly arrived racial or ethnic groups into an area. For example, language barriers and being isolated by the dominant population of youths at school and on the streets may lead excluded youths to band together and form a permanent youth group and potentially come to be recognized as a gang.

The fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States is Latinos. This ethnic group has grown to be the second-largest group in the country, to approximately 40 million in 2003 (The Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, 2004). Latinos are now the largest ethnic minority in nearly half of the states, and their numbers are growing fastest in the South, although the largest Latino concentrations are in the West, South Florida, and a few large cities.

The rapid growth of immigrant population groups is not limited to Latinos. From 1990 to 2000, the foreign-born population in the United States increased 57 percent (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003). About half of the foreign-born population in the United States in 2000 was from Latin America (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001). The remaining foreign-born was from Asia, Europe,



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