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Comprehensive causation overview of the street gangs in the United States

Crime Scene after a shooting
Crime Scene after a shooting
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images


Criminal law and criminal justice has always struggled in finding a gang definition that can reach a consensus among everyone who is involved in dealing with the gangs, the effects of the gangs, and the problems associated with the existence of gangs. Researchers in the social sciences deal with the gang definition different than a social worker that is dealing with the problem in the neighborhoods. Additionally, the police provide a different definition as to what is a gang. And lastly, the criminal justice practitioners and criminalists have their own definition or understanding about gangs. Some interpret the definition to fit their field of work and others create an understanding that many times criminalizes the term more than necessary.

This article provides a causation overview of gangs in the United States (US) based on cause and effect and not inside the realm of identification of programs that have failed to solve the gang problems. A gang in the United States is viewed different than the gangs in Central America. The types of crimes are one of the biggest distinctions among gangs in the US from the gangs in other parts of the world, followed perhaps by the level of violence used against society. In Chicago, the gangs have ample opportunity to be involved in drug dealing, property crimes, and crimes such as armed robberies (crimes that involve violence). The gangs in Chicago also get into the illegal sale of guns and participate in most of Part I crimes: Aggravated assault, forcible rape, murder, robbery, arson, burglary, theft (larceny), and motor vehicle theft (FBI).

In comparison, in Central America, the gangs get involved in all the crimes from Part I and also are involved in kidnapping, extortion, money laundering, white-collar crimes, transnational crime (drug trafficking and counterfeiting), illegal gun trade, and murder for hire. The crimes like kidnapping and extortion are two crimes that gangs in the US try to avoid because it carries the attention of the Federal Authorities. Unfortunately, the gangs in Central America enjoy a lot of more flexibility and maximize their crime opportunities. Therefore, this article will only focus on gangs in the US. This article will not go into details on how these crimes occur, but perhaps shine a light on the factors and reasons that bring about the necessary conditions for gangs and crime.


Malcolm W. Klein and Cheryl L. Maxson describe a gang as, “A street gang is any durable, street-oriented youth group whose involvement in illegal activity is part of its group identity” (2006). This definition is for the most part a complete definition but it requires that the elements be understood at a much deeper level. It is important to highlight the durable component in this definition mainly because a group of youth may not be tied up to a gang. The misunderstanding of the gang definition could misdiagnose a group for a gang, even if the group appears to have some characteristics of a gang.

As the result, the durability factor is easily tested when the gang members get arrested or the leadership leaves. If the so-called gang disintegrates when some of the members move out of town or end up in jail, the gang was not a gang, but simply a group of criminals involved in criminal activity without a gang affiliation. Therefore, it is important to determine if the group is actually a gang. Better training is required in this field in regards to gang detection and determination. It appears that too many times youth groups are mislabeled.

Another element in the definition above is the word “youth” that intends to describe that a gang has youth involved and leave out the “hardcore” adult gang population. Perhaps the definition should have “young and adults.” G. David Curry writes that youth involved or not seriously involved may actually become adult (hardcore) gang members according to the juvenile and criminal justice systems (2000). Therefore, it is important to consider the youth gang member and the adult gang member in the same definition, while each may receive a different application of the law and face different courts. This consolidation must take place in order to have one view and not a number of views that ultimately see the gang as a different thing.

According to Klein and Maxson in order to provide a definition for a gang, there must a sufficient number of characteristics that could define a gang or a troublesome youth group (Klein and Maxson, 2006). A judge or a prosecutor, while part of the justice system that will be dealing with the gang member, is unable to be on the street “defining” a gang. Law enforcement is the one group who is given the power to determine what a gang is and what is not a gang. Therefore, defining a gang remains in the hands of the police and as the result the definition Klein and Maxson provide is adequate.


Gang patterns and crime are not always basis for gang activity or gang related crime. In 1988, G. David Curry and Irving A. Spergel revealed some interesting facts about gangs (1988). The 1980’s the US experienced some of the most challenging times in regards to gang violence (Curry & Spergel, 1988). Curry and Spergel explain in detail how the gang problem can be considered in many different ways but it comes down to be a community problem where Hispanic and black communities (mostly disadvantaged and poor), create different dynamics that result in the creation of gangs based on location and racial composition (Curry & Spergel, 1988). However, this alone does not provide sufficient evidence for gang patterns and crime. The main reason is because many crimes from these gangs take place outside their territorial control or the gang infested community. Also, gangs are not limited to Hispanics and blacks.

Curry and Spergel state that delinquency and crime involves juveniles and adults and many times they have a well-organized gang that includes (or not include) leadership, but they are still considered gangs (Curry & Spergel, 1988). Drawing this distinction of youth and adult is important, since much of the focus from the governments is around youth gangs. As the result, many police departments assume that the youth are the only ones they need help i.e. intervention and prevention. Therefore, when the gang is more complex and organized it is easier to analyze gang patterns and crime. The challenge is to address the problems created by the rest of the criminals who are non-gang members but act as a well organized criminal group and the smaller gangs, often called “nontraditional gangs.”


In the area of socioeconomic (the combination of social and economic factors) arena, Curry and Spergel revealed also that the neighborhood and poverty have a lot to do with gangs (1988). Curry and Spergel claimed that criminal law theory does not normally distinguish the poverty belt and social disorganization (1988). Cities may desire lower crime but do little or nothing to invest in the high crime communities that most times have high levels of gang presence.

It is true that racial divisions in neighborhoods dictate certain norms and gang membership opportunities. The socioeconomic condition of a neighborhood that is poor and the residents have no job opportunities will attract gang and crime (Gordon et al, 2004). The residents must earn a living even when most may be receiving public aid. The only alternative for these residents is gang membership and crime. Therefore, the root of the gang problems in poor neighborhoods again has more to do with the socioeconomic factors, which are conditions that could be overturned, but it gets little attention as a possible solution.


In the research titled “Facilitating Violence: A comparison of gang-motivated, gang-affiliated, and Nongang Youth Homicides” the authors revealed that there is confusion regarding “gang-related” and how this confusion causes researches and probably everyone else a lot of confusion (Rosenfeld et al, 1999). It is much easier to classify crime that occurs inside high crime areas as gang related. Criminalists and police officers (who are criminalists), make errors in judgment when they do that. While it is possible to address the issue of gun violence with an argument of lack of gun regulation in this topic, the only point worth making on that issue is that gangs are often using military grade assault rifles to conduct drive-by shootings and attacks against rivals (McDaniel, 2014).

Many times the evidence may be such that it is not necessarily gang related but because it occurs in a certain location, it is quickly assumed that it is. This of course causes confusion not only for the city administrators, the police, and the professionals involved in the criminal justice system, but also confusion in the minds of the residents (gang members and non-gang members).

It is a real problem when police, the criminologists collecting the evidence, and the prosecutors do not pursue a more rigorous investigation when the crimes occur in the “bad areas of town.” As the result it is much easier for everyone to label the crime gang related. This discrimination is more visible when the crime takes place in the rich neighborhoods or in the middle of a commercial area frequented by tourists. Chicago is no exception.

When the police assign the definition of gang related to a non-gang related crime, the numbers and crimes statistics for researchers become unreliable. It is true that individual gang members have higher risk of violence and that membership is not necessary for an individual to participate in a gang war, a real misconception in the police field (Rosenfeld et al, 1999). It is possible that the confusion on when something is gang related or not actually affects the perception from the police, criminalists, and the prosecutors. It is possible to argue that there should be no distinction based on the neighborhood where crime occurs and each crime should get the same level of service.

Lastly, risk and violence exposure is relative to the location and neighborhood. This is a fact. It is possible to assume that revenge killings and other crimes will take place by “civilians” i.e. non-gang members. This is also a fact. Therefore there is a high degree of confusion on the determination of what is gang related and what is not.


Neighborhood Disadvantage and Neighborhood Instability are factors that help gang proliferation (Rosenfeld et al, 1999). The discussion earlier touched on socioeconomic conditions that crate fertile grounds for gang and crime. The main distinction on putting focus on the different neighborhoods has more to do with addressing the infrastructures of the neighborhood such as security, lighting, streets, stores, housing, businesses, and public transportation. In the last 8 years, the City of Chicago began to tear-down vacant houses in disadvantaged neighborhoods, which today has resulted in more neighborhood instability. These neighborhoods today have less housing available and a lack of housing creates other challenges.

One of the challenges seen today is that gangs that have lost housing in their territories and they are relocating to other areas where turf wars are increasing. This lack of housing in the disadvantaged neighborhoods is increasing violent crimes in suburban communities, where gang members and other criminals relocate and find easy crime targets. Crimes such as armed robberies and murder, caused in the commission of a crime, are increasing.

Focusing on the neighborhoods and improving the neighborhood has a lot of value that can reduce gang activity and criminal activity and result in neighborhood stability. For example, routine activities and gang function are factors that facilitate access to risk and violence as well as crimes such as drug dealing and gun violence (Rosenfeld et al, 1999; Curry & Spergel 1988). As long as neighborhoods continue to be disadvantaged and have great neighborhood instability, the gangs will continue to produce crime and violence. Add to that the easy access to gun ownership (in the illegal market place) and the recipe is for more gang membership and more guns on the hands of the gang members (Rosenfeld et al, 1999; Bjerregaard & Lizotte, 1995).


The criminal justice system is facing significant challenges as well. The states that are decriminalizing and legalizing marijuana are challenging the efforts to combat drug trafficking and gangs. Gangs make a significant amount of revenue because of the sale of illegal drugs. Why would someone want to pay 100 for something they can get with their local drug dealer for 20 dollars? This is a question that nobody seems to be able to answer in the states of Washington and Colorado. Unlike the production of alcohol, marijuana is a plant that can be easily produced. The message for youth today is that marijuana is not bad. However, marijuana still remains a gateway drug. The increasing presence of heroin a harder drug to leave is creating chaos in the criminal justice system and it is now challenging how police head out to emergency calls when a possible overdose is possible.

Attorney General Eric Holder in a recent interview at the University of Virginia stated that he was concerned that these marijuana shops in Colorado and other states are operating an all cash business, since most banking systems have excluded them (At University, 2014). Holder indicated that he would be proposing legislation in order to allow these businesses to enter the banking system in order to avoid other problems. (At University, 2014).

At the New York State Bar Association Annual Meeting, Attorney General Eric Holder stated that the US incarcerate about a quarter of the world’s prisoners, over half of the 216,000 inmates are in jail in a federal prison for drug related offences, and the Department of Justice spends 6.5 billion dollars in prisons a year (Remarks, 2014). This issue shows a real disconnect in the prevention or perhaps in addressing the real causes of criminal activity in communities. Addressing gangs and drugs by using alternative means could be ground shaking. Filling up the jails so far have produced no positive results in these poor communities.


In a paper in Criminology, Richard A. Ball and G. David Curry, they state that there is a lot of confusion on defining what is a gang and everyone involved in dealing with the gang problems have a different definition (1995). Ball and Curry add, “The confusion is so great that some advocate abandoning the term, maintaining that it can never be standardized because it is not a term use by youth themselves to reflect the actual empirical reality of their involvements but rather a meaningless label thrown about by the adult community” (1995). Therefore, there is no standard definition.

The gang population in the United Sates is responsible for a lot of the criminal activity. Their actions cost the US billions of dollars and loss of property and life. This article suggested many ideas that go to the root of the gang problem. Trying to incarcerate every gang member will not “fix” the problem. There must be other alternative approaches to build safer communities, bring pride for these residents and create job opportunities. Gang violence, gun violence, drug sales, and gang related violence are topics for policymakers and politicians, but they never address the opportunities and causes of gang violence or gang’s existence or causation (Klein and Maxson, 2006).

While this article did not discuss education, making education available to disadvantaged neighborhoods should be one of the highest priorities for governments. Projects that include prevention, intervention, and suppression activities to reduce gang population must also look at the root causes as described in this article (Klein and Maxson, 2006). Everything must be coordinated together and every step must include all the stakeholders. There must be a lot more research in regards to gang members who leave the gang and the process that caused them to leave the gang (Klein and Maxson, 2006). Lastly, a neighborhood stabilization approach may include corporate responsibility, the community, and all levels of governments.



Ball, Richard A & Curry, G. David (1995). The Logic of definition in criminology: Purposes and methods for defining “gangs”. Criminology, 33(2), 225-225. Retrieved from; The+logic+of+definition+in+criminology%3A+Purposes+and+methods+for+ defining+%22gangs%22&title=Criminology&issn=00111384&date=1995-05- 01&volume=33&issue=2&spage=225&author=Ball%2C+Richard+A%3BCurry%2C+G+David

Bjerregaard, B., & Lizotte, A. J. (1995). Gun ownership and gang membership. The Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 86(1):37-57. Retrieved from: American Military University.

Curry, G. David. (2000). Self-reported gang involvement and officially recorded delinquency. Criminology; Nov 2000; Vol. 38, 4; ProQuest. Retrieved from AMU.

Curry, G. D. & Spergel. (1988). Gang homicide, delinquency, and community. Criminology, 26 (3): 381-405. Retrieved from: American Military University.

Klein, Malcolm W. & Maxson, C. L. (2006). Street Gang Patters and Policies.” New York: Oxford University Press.

Gordon, R. A., Lahey, B. B., Kawai, E., Loeber, R., Stouthamer-Loeber, M., & Farrington, D. P. (2004). Antisocial behavior and youth gang membership: selection and socialization. Criminology, 42(1): 55-87. Retrieved from: American Military University, CRMJ523 B001, Week 2.

McDaniel, D. (2014). Gun violence myths debunked; quest for profits exposed. National Catholic Reporter, 50(6), 1. Retrieved from

Remarks as prepared for delivery by deputy attorney general james cole at the new york state bar association annual meeting. (2014). Lanham: Federal Information & News Dispatch, Inc. Retrieved from

Rosenfeld, R., Bray, T. M., & Egley, A. (1999). Facilitating Violence: A Comparison of Gang-Motivated, Gang-Affiliated, and Nongang Youth Homicides. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 15 (4): 495-516. Retrieved from: American Military University, CRMJ523 B001, Week 2.

UCR Crime Categories. FBI. Retrieved January 10, 2014, from

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