Prevalence of Gangs in the U.S.: Measurement Approaches and Findings From Police Data
- Arlen Egley, Jr.Arlen Egley, Jr.Department of Justice Systems, Truman State University
Street gang activity has garnered academic and public attention for many decades. Compared with other youth groups, street gangs contribute disproportionately to crime and violence, though the vast majority of crime and violence in the United States is unrelated to gang activity. A distinctive aspect in the study of gangs is the multiple dimensions in which gangs are situated. Depending on the research interest, gang activity may be construed as an independent variable (as a cause) or a dependent variable (as an effect). Moreover, gang activity simultaneously represents multiple levels of analysis: the individual level (gang member), the group level (gang), and the macro level (neighborhoods and broader geographical places in which gangs form and transform). These multiple dimensions present a wide variety of research streams in which to study gangs. Where and why gang activity emerges, when and why individuals join and leave gangs, the wide-ranging diversity in gang structure and organization are but a few of the many areas gang scholars have focused on in order to describe and explain gangs and gang members. Some research areas, such as the association between gang membership and criminal offending and the risk factors for gang joining, have been researched quite extensively. Other areas, such as the nature and extent of gang migration outside larger cities and desistance processes from the gang, have not received or have only recently begun to receive intensive and consistent scholarly attention. Definitional matters are also paramount and inextricably linked to understanding gang activity. How should we define “street gangs,” how should “gang membership” be defined and determined, when and how should a crime be designated as “gang related”? These definitional issues have sparked considerable and sometimes heated debates, and consensus remains elusive. It is important to be mindful of these various dimensions, streams, and issues as we continue our efforts to describe and document street gangs and enhance our understanding of gang processes. Successful strategies for the response to and reduction of street gang activity are contingent on them.