Updated: Nov 3
Youths who feel alienated from their families, schools, churches, communities and other
traditional institutions are at-risk of joining a gang. These young people are searching for a sense of identity and belonging. Juvenile gangs can meet these needs, as well as offer excitement and rejection of adult norms and values. Youngsters who are raised in homes marked by racism and domestic violence are especially vulnerable to the influence of gangs. Children and teens join gangs for many reasons, but the basis for their existence is to fill needs which are not being met otherwise. Children need to have a sense of being accepted, appreciated and belonging. This puts them at-risk to join a gang.
Alienation/Powerlessness – Youths who are sensing alienation from and powerlessness within
traditional institutions like the family, school and mainstream society are likely candidates for
juvenile gangs. They tend to be raised in single-family households, to have been taught
prejudice, to have experienced domestic violence, to have limited “legitimate” access to the
things they want or need, to harbor intense feelings of desperation and hopelessness and to be frustrated and angry.
Identification/Power – Membership in a juvenile gang provides vulnerable youths with a sense of belonging. Being part of a group affords them a sense of power and control. The ability to identify with others who share similar experiences reinforces their feelings of alienation and desperation. Gang activities become the outlet for the members’ frustrations and anger. The gang is now the primary source of identity and power in the lives of its members.
Structure/Turf – Juvenile gangs are closely associated with the geographical area they control – their “turf.” This control of turf is essential to the gang’s existence. And the gang gains and
maintains its control through the use of force. This generally requires the purchase and use of
weapons. In order to obtain weapons, as well as drugs, cars and other items used by the gang, money is extracted from the residents who live on the gang’s turf. Payment may be taken
covertly by burglary or robbery, or overtly through the purchase of protection or drugs. Like
other business enterprises, gangs have a hierarchical structure of leaders who control and direct the activities of the gang. Planning and organizing happen suddenly and action is usually taken without regard for consequences. Leadership is obtained by force and fear and sustained through reward and punishment. Because of the power, prestige and money involved internal struggles for and changes in leadership positions are constant. Although juvenile gangs can organize to accomplish certain things, like selling drugs and controlling their turf, most do not have the organizational skills characteristic of organized crime.
Recruitment/Expansion – In order to obtain control of its turf, and to gain more turf and
resources, the gang must expand its membership. Therefore, it must constantly identify, recruit
and initiate new members. Those youths who are most vulnerable to join a gang include both
“willing” and “unwilling’ participants. Willing participants seek membership to fill their own
personal needs. Unwilling participants include those youths who are forced to join. To ensure
their continued involvement and loyalty, new members are required to commit illegal or violent
acts. The most violent juvenile gangs require new recruits to display their commitment and
loyalty performing a drive-by shooting or by murdering a member of another gang.
Furthermore, the drug trade has made it both necessary and possible to develop national
organizations. When an area becomes saturated with drugs, prices and profits decline while the number of gang members who sell drugs cannot expand. As a result, income and cash-flow of the gang stagnate. When this happens, the gang is in jeopardy of internal disintegration or external takeover. In order to maintain its existence and make more money, the gang sends members to other areas to increase its drug markets. In turn, the increase of juvenile gangs continues.*
*Adapted from our book, Juvenile Gangs in America: Who They are & What to do About Them