Today, the phenomenon of the youth gang surge and spread of criminal subculture represent a relevant issue for the US. In scientific and media discourse, youth gangs are usually perceived and discussed from the standpoint of juvenile violence, delinquencies, and criminal conduct. Meanwhile, the social context and peculiarities of youth rationale for entering the gang are less discussed. The following analysis suggests that the solution of issues connected with social context surrounding the youth gangs, like social class, inequality, and unstable neighborhoods, are of primary importance to mitigate the negative implications of the youth gang spread in the US.
First of all, it is necessary to explore what groups can be defined as “youth gangs.” Despite the presence of numerous definitions, the standard criterion for youth gang identification is the group of 3 or more youth or young adults with a shared identity, allegiance, permanence, and particular form of organization (Holmes, Tewksbury & Higgins, 2012). Usually, the distribution of power and influence within gangs is organized vertically and tend to focus on a particular area, while the gangs are commonly comprised of the members of the same ethnic or cultural background.
Currently, the youth gangs are increasingly identified with the criminal world of organized crime. Indeed, it is hard to deny that the organized crime in the United States has changed, and instead of large syndicates or criminal organizations, people more often encounter street gangs ” groups of criminals who control certain areas and specialize in minor crimes, robberies, racketeering, and drug trafficking. The particular feature of gangs in the US is the growing number of young gang members and the creation of gangs that consists completely of youth. Thus, recent scholar findings suggest that the scale of the problem is considerably underestimated in the US, as there are more than one million juvenile gang members (Pyrooz & Sweeten, 2015).
However, comprehensive studies admit that the nature of youth gang activity is largely misrepresented, for the most part, due to the character of media discourse and stereotypes. Hence, Shelden, Tracy, and Brown (2013) suggest that even though youth gang members indeed commit crimes, they are far more likely to end up as victims, primarily the victims of the distorted social class system and inequality. Meanwhile, the law enforcement strict view of gangs, as well as popular fears supported by the media, contribute to the lack of understanding of the youth gang spread as a social rather than criminal issue.
Thus, such factors as poverty, the spread of unemployment, the growing income gap, discrimination, and inequality drives the entire neighborhoods of urban areas into the threat of gang spread, as in the absence of opportunities to make a living or the lack of support and care, youth organize themselves in these groups more easily. Nevertheless, while it is believed that the affiliation to youth gangs, especially criminal ones, is particularly strong and dangerous, the research found that gangs have high turnover rates, accounting nearly 36 percent annually (Pyrooz & Sweeten, 2015). Hence, in turn to popular stereotypes that it is hard to leave the gang, it implies that youth members frequently quit after a short period. Therefore, there are many adolescents at the periphery of the criminal world, and prompt intervention may help to prevent them from involvement.
However, besides intervention, it is necessary to acknowledge the core factors that are related to the spread of the youth gangs in the US. Hence, scholars found that youth with low academic achievement, living in single-parent families, and associated with delinquent friends were on average three times more likely to enter the gang (Hill, Lui & Hawkins, 2001). Moreover, Johnson (2005) indicates that such factor as unstable neighborhoods that are full of misleading role models, have a lot of broken families and easy access to drugs also contributes to the crisis from the negative side.
Of course, Shelden and colleagues (2013) acknowledge negative implication, but suggest that this problem should be viewed without an emphasis on the youth gang threat for society, incarceration, blaming or labeling. After all, they found that the youth rationale for entering the gang is primarily driven by the need of the feeling of belonging and affiliation that boosts self-esteem, provides protection, an alternative to the lack of family support. This shows that the lack of a proper social setting and opportunities in their context resulted in the serious lack of support, care, and attention, which may shift into criminal behavior and violence in case of ignorance. Hence, it is necessary to treat this problem not as a law enforcement issue, but rather a social and community problem, which should be struggled through counseling and youth empowerment programmes, support of families, provision of job and educational opportunities, development of poor neighborhoods and early prevention.
In conclusion, the analysis suggests that youth gangs are not so much criminal as the community and societal problem. However, the core reasons of juvenile gang spread are neglected while the popular perception of gangs is largely confused and intensively identified with delinquency and organized crime. Meanwhile, the root social factors like inequality, poverty, the lack of education and employment opportunities, and unstable neighborhoods should get more attention as the primary driving forces of youth gang spread. These findings should become the wake-up call for the US policymakers, educators, and society overall.