Order Code RL33400
Youth Gangs: Background, Legislation,
Updated January 25, 2008
Specialist in Social Legislation
Domestic Social Policy Division
Youth Gangs: Background, Legislation,
Gang activity and related violence threaten public order in a diverse range of
communities in the United States today. Congress has long recognized that this
problem affects a number of issues of federal concern, and federal legislation has
been introduced in the 110th Congress to address some aspects of the issue.
Youth gangs have been an endemic feature of American urban life. They are
well attested as early as the 18th century and have been a recurrent subject of concern
since then. Contemporary views of the problem have been formed against the
background of a significant adverse secular trend in gang activity during the last four
decades. In particular, the rapid growth of gang membership, geographical
dispersion, and criminal involvement during the violent crime epidemic — associated
with the emergence of the crack cocaine market during the mid-1980s to the early
1990s — have intensified current concerns. The experience of those years continues
to mark both patterns of gang activity and public policy responses toward them.
Reports about the increased activity and recent migration of a violent Californiabased gang, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), have heightened concerns about gangs
in certain areas of the country.
Policy development and implementation in this area are bedeviled by discrepant
uses of the term “gang” and the absence of uniform standards of statistical reporting.
There are reasons for special care in the use of data on gangs and their activity.
Without a standardized definition of what is meant by “gang,” such as the age group
or activities engaged in by its members, or standardized reporting among the state,
local, tribal, and federal levels of government, it is difficult to target anti-gang
initiatives and evaluate their effectiveness. According to a national gang survey, the
most recent estimate indicates that there were about 760,000 gang members in 24,000
gangs in the United States in 2004.
In the 110th Congress, several bills have been introduced that would address
various aspects of the gang problem. Some of the bills would address the problem
through comprehensive gang prevention initiatives, such as H.R. 3846. Other bills
address the gang problem through combinations of criminal penalty enhancements,
targeted prosecutorial efforts and anti-gang task forces, and gang prevention
provisions. These anti-gang proposals include H.R. 880, H.R. 1582, H.R. 3547, H.R.
3922, S. 456, S. 990, and S. 2237.
This report provides background information on the issue of youth gangs,
including data on gangs and gang crime. It reviews existing anti-gang initiatives at
the federal, state, and local levels, and describes some of the legislation proposed
during the 110th Congress to address the gang problem, as well as some of the issues
raised by those bills. This report will be updated in response to significant legislative
activity in the 110th Congress.
Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Background . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
Definition of a Youth Gang . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
Prevalence of the Problem . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
National Youth Gang Survey . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
Crime Statistics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
Juvenile Gang Homicide . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
National Crime Victimization Survey . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
National Gang Threat Assessment . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
Characteristics of Gangs and Gang Members . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
Youth Gang Demographics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
Rural Gangs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19
Latino Gangs: MS-13, A Case Study . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22
Gangs and the “Transnational Threat” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 24
Federal Anti-Gang Programs and Initiatives . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25
Selected Congressional Action . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25
Selected Proposals and Initiatives . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27
Selected State and Local Programs and Strategies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 33
California’s Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act . . . . . . . . . 35
Gang Civil Injunctions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 35
Legislative Proposals in the 110th Congress . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 37
Criminal Street Gang and Associated Crimes and Penalties . . . . . . . . . . . . 37
Amendments to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations
Statute . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 38
Transfer of Juveniles for Adult Prosecution . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 38
Gang Task Forces and Prosecutorial Assistance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 38
Gang Prevention Grants . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 39
Selected Issues Raised by Legislative Proposals . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 40
Selected Options For Congress . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 43
Prevention Programs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 43
Gang Data Improvements . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 44
Suppression Strategies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 45
Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 45
List of Figures
Figure 1. Respondents Reporting Youth Gang Problems by Size of
Jurisdiction, 1996-2004 (in averaged percentages) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
Figure 2. Status of Gang Problem in Jurisdiction of Survey Respondents,
1997-2002 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
Figure 3. Gangland and Juvenile Gang Homicides by Age of Offender, 2003 . 13
Figure 4. Juvenile Gang Homicides, 1987-2005 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
Figure 5. Youth Gang Demographics, 2001 (in percent) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18
List of Tables
Table 1. Selected Risk Factors For Youth Gang Membership . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
Table 2. NYGC Estimated Youth Gang Problem in the United States,
1995-2004 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
Table 3. Estimated Demographic Characteristics of Gangs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18
Table 4. Percentage of Students Reporting Gang Presence in Schools . . . . . . . 20
Table 5. Percentage of Students Reporting Gang Presence By Residence . . . . . 21
Table 6. Percentage of Students, Aged 12-18, Who Reported Gangs Were
Present at School During the Previous Six Months, 2003 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21
Youth Gangs: Background, Legislation,
Organized youth gangs1 and the criminal activity they engage in have long been
a concern to policy makers. National attention on gangs reached a high point in the
mid-1980s and early 1990s as the violent crime rate reached unprecedented numbers.
Although concerns about gangs and gang-related violence during these years were
essentially isolated to inner-city urban areas, today the concern has shifted to include
violent gang activities that have more recently proliferated into rural and suburban
areas. Growing concerns about the number and geographic migration of certain
violent Latino gangs into new areas, both rural and suburban, brought the issue
before Congress. In addition, concerns about the potential threat gangs pose to
domestic security, along with longstanding concerns about the prevalence of gangs
in urban areas and the proliferation of gangs in rural areas, continue to fuel
For the most part, gangs and gang crime have been a state and local law
enforcement issue. Until recently, the federal role in stemming illegal gang activity
was largely limited to grant programs to state and local law enforcement and
community-based agencies. As gangs became more sophisticated and expanded the
types of illegal activities they engaged in (i.e., money laundering, drug enterprise,
etc.), Congress and the Administration began to take note. Although federal laws
already existed for prosecuting the types of crimes committed by gang members at
the federal level, Congress began to specifically address the gang problem and gangrelated violence linked to the “crack” cocaine epidemic of the late 1980s through the
Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988 (P.L. 99-570 and P.L. 100-690).2 Further
congressional action on gangs did not occur until 1994, when Congress passed
The terms “youth gang,”“street gang,” and “gang” are often used interchangeably in much
of the literature on youth gangs, and generally, these terms are used to refer to individuals
ranging in age between 12 and 25 years. In contrast, the term “juvenile” generally refers to
individuals who are under 18 years of age. When the term “youth gang” is used, as it is in
most of the literature on gangs, it is possible for some to assume incorrectly that a gang
member is typically a juvenile although gang memberships also include adults. See Irving
A. Spergel and G. David Curry, “Strategies and Perceived Agency Effectiveness in Dealing
with the Youth Gang Problem,” Gangs in America, 1990, p. 289.
Both acts provided mandatory minimum sentences for drug traffickers who were found to
be in possession of certain types of illicit drugs. The illicit drug trade is often associated
with more highly organized criminal gangs.
legislation designed to address the gang problem through more comprehensive
This report provides background information on the issue of youth gangs,
including data on gangs and gang crime. It reviews existing anti-gang initiatives at
the federal, state, and local levels and describes proposed federal legislation designed
to address the problem, as well as some of the issues raised by these proposals. The
report then briefly discusses policy options for dealing with the gang problem.
Gang activity in the United States has been traced back to the late 18th century,
in the years following the end of the American Revolution.4 The earliest identifiable
gangs were recorded living in the slums of New York City in 1783.5 It has been
estimated that in 1855, New York City alone had more than 30,000 gang members.6
The emergence of youth gangs in the U.S. is thought by some to be connected to
immigration patterns, forming as a collective response to urban conditions in many
of the large cities populated by recent immigrants as they struggled to make
economic, social, and cultural adjustments. One of the earliest researchers on youth
gangs, Frederic M. Thrasher, wrote in 1927 that the gangs he studied in Chicago may
have emerged from “play groups” in immigrant neighborhoods.7
Early in American history, gangs were made up of specific ethnic groups, such
as Irish, Italian, Jewish, Slavic, and other ethnic groups who immigrated to the
United States and were drawn to the first large cities of New York, Boston, and
Philadelphia. Most gang researchers agree that waves of immigration played a major
role in the formation and spread of gangs in the United States. For many immigrant
groups, gangs have historically provided a way of developing economic or social
advantages in a strange country. In more recent history, the past 35 years have
brought waves of immigrant groups of Asians (Cambodians, Filipinos, Koreans,
Samoans, Thais, and others) and Latin Americans (Colombians, Cubans,
Dominicans, Ecuadorians, Mexicans, Panamanians, Puerto Ricans, and many others)
See the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (P.L. 103-322).
Luc Sante, Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, 1991, pp. 198-199. In the late
1780s, there were at least five known gangs in New York City: the Smith’s Vly gang, the
Bowery Boys, and the Broadway Boys, who were white, and the Fly Boys and the Long
Bridge Boys, who were black. Historically, most gangs have been locally based groups that
often took names that indicated the neighborhoods where they lived and carried on their
activities. For example, the Fly Boys were from the area around Fly Market, and like the
Smith’s Vly gang, their name was derived from the Dutch word vly, meaning valley.
James C. Howell, “Youth Gangs: An Overview,” American Youth Gangs at the
Millennium, by Finn-Aage, p. 17.
Kenneth J. Peak and Timothy Griffin, “Gangs: Origin, Status, Community Responses, and
Policy Implications,” in Visions for Change Crime and Justice in the Twenty-First Century,
Roslyn Muraskin and Albert R. Roberts, eds. (2005), p. 44.
Frederic M. Thrasher, The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago (1927), pp. 26-32.
into urban areas across the country where many of the same language and cultural
barriers have led to the formation of gangs among these groups.8
Most of the research on youth gangs has traditionally been based on
sociological, ethnographic, and psychological methods. Using the methodological
constructs of these disciplines, the majority of the research focuses on how the
socioeconomic and environmental factors work to foster youth gangs. Poverty, poor
educational opportunities, joblessness, and unstable family structures are among the
social structures identified that can influence at-risk youth to join and to remain in
gangs. Gangs are found in urban and suburban neighborhoods or rural areas where
disaffected youths or migrant populations face poverty, poor schools, and
joblessness. Researchers have also identified many factors that contribute to
heighten a juvenile’s risk of joining a gang, including familial and individual
problems, such as juveniles growing up with little or no parental involvement (no
parents, single parents, or both parents working) or juveniles with behavioral
problems (see Table 1). According to gang researchers, such at-risk juveniles would
be more likely to look to gangs to find acceptance, stability, companionship, and a
sense of identity, particularly when their communities or the larger society is not
perceived to provide opportunities for integration and acceptance.
Table 1. Selected Risk Factors For Youth Gang Membership
Poverty, social disorganization
Gangs in the neighborhood
Availability of firearms
Availability of drugs
Broken home, parental drug/alcohol use
Lack of parental role models
Low socioeconomic status
Source: Phelan A. Wyrick and James C. Howell, “Strategic Risk-Based Response to
Youth Gangs,” Juvenile Justice Journal, vol. IX, no. 1 (September 2004).
U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, The
Growth of Youth Gang Problems in the United States 1970-1998 (April 2001).
Gang membership is also influenced by socioeconomic and class distinctions
that often stem from prejudice, racism, and alienation from many of society’s
institutions. Gangs provide affiliation with others who have certain characteristics
in common to one another but who may be considered as outsiders in the larger
society, often providing income to those with few prospects of finding a job or
making a living. Gang membership has not always been associated with serious
criminal activity, although research indicates that joining a gang does increase an
individual’s risk of involvement in crime. Gangs often fight other rival gangs over
turf issues and often are involved in petty crimes and misdemeanors. More highly
organized gangs are often involved in more serious crimes such as drug trafficking,
violence, and illegal possession of firearms.
Definition of a Youth Gang
Academics and other experts on gangs continue to debate the formal definition
of the term “gang” and the types of individuals included in gangs. Does a gang
consist of members of certain ages? Are gangs always involved in crime? Do gangs
vary in composition and organization from community to community, or do they all
have some common elements in their organization, activities, and cultures? Despite
decades and mountains of research there is still not a common definition of “gang”
that is accepted by police, schools, academics, and communities across the nation.
Generally, there is agreement that gangs usually have a name and some sense
of identity that can sometimes be indicated by symbols such as clothing, graffiti, and
hand signs that are unique to the gang. Typically, gangs tend to have some degree
of permanence and organization and are generally, to some degree, involved in
delinquent or criminal activity. The criminal activities of gangs can range widely
from graffiti, vandalism, petty theft, robbery, and assaults, to more serious criminal
activities such as drug trafficking, drug smuggling, money laundering, alien
smuggling, extortion, home invasion, murder, and other violent felonies. Some of
the characteristics that are used to identify gang membership, often in combination
with self-identification, are symbols or symbolic behavior, the association with
known gang members, participation in certain criminal behavior, the individual’s
location or residence, identification by a police informant, or direct observation of
certain symbols or symbolic behavior by law enforcement officers.9
Gang definitions vary widely and have changed over time. Early in the
twentieth century, gangs could be seen by some as benign groups of friends from the
same neighborhood providing social support and a sense of community, sometimes
bound by kinship, and not established to commit delinquent acts. Gang members
could be perceived as providing a protective function for their communities by
attacking or driving out unwanted interlopers. However, today gangs are most often
seen as juvenile delinquents and criminals who are more likely to be a threat to
communities and public order, frequently as drug traffickers and violent criminals.
Although this may not be true of all gang members, it is certainly clear that popular
U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, OJJDP, Youth Gang Programs and
Strategies (August 2000), p. 27.
images in the media often portray gang members as criminals, and they are widely
perceived as such by many.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency
Prevention (OJJDP), relying on several definitions offered by “leading theorists and
researchers,” defines a youth gang as a group that is involved in a pattern of criminal
acts, typically composed only of juveniles, but may include young adults in their
membership. Prison gangs, ideological gangs, hate groups, motorcycle gangs, and
gangs whose membership is restricted to adults and that do not have the
characteristics of youth gangs are excluded. The DOJ National Criminal Justice
Reference Service (NCJRS), while acknowledging that gangs are defined in many
ways, provides a common definition of a gang as a group of three or more individuals
who engage in criminal activity and identify themselves with a common name or
Gangs are also defined in current federal law. The U.S. Criminal Code defines
a “criminal street gang” as:
an ongoing group, club, organization, or association of 5 or more persons — (A)
that has as 1 of its primary purposes the commission of 1 or more of the criminal
offenses described in subsection (c); (B) the members of which engage, or have
engaged within the past 5 years, in a continuing series of offenses described in
subsection (c); and (C) the activities of which affect interstate or foreign
The criminal offenses ascribed to a criminal street gang in subsection (c) include
certain federal felonies that involve a controlled substance with a maximum penalty
of five or more years of imprisonment; a federal felony that involves violence, or
attempted violence, against another person; or, a conspiracy to commit either of these
types of federal felonies.11
Several of the broad anti-gang bills introduced in the 110th Congress would
modify the federal criminal code definition12 of a criminal street gang as groups,
associations, organizations, etc., consisting of three or more (instead of five or more)
persons. In addition, most of these anti-gang bills would increase the penalties
applied to criminal street gang crime and specified a number of violent crimes that
would be punishable under the bills. Introduced in the 110th Congress, S. 456, H.R.
1582, H.R. 880, S. 990, and H.R. 1692 contain some version of this type of provision
(see discussion below).
For most of the history of the research on gangs, the definition of gang
membership relied on most by researchers has been self-identification by gang
18 U.S.C. 521.
This definition was added to current law in 1994 by Title XV §150001 of the Violent
Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (P.L. 103-322).
The definition of a criminal street gang in federal statute is used for the purposes of
federal prosecutions as sentencing enhancements, but is not a definition that has been used
by the larger community of gang experts and researchers.
members themselves. Law enforcement officers, too, most often rely on a suspect’s
willingness to self-identify or “claim” gang membership for police identification and
reporting purposes. For policy makers, how the term “gang” is defined and who is
a gang member are important concepts for gauging the extent and nature of the
problem, as well as for developing appropriate policy and program responses. The
continued absence of a standard definition limits the utility of data collection for
research purposes and for criminal reporting. It also limits the ability to quantify and
understand the extent of the gang problem and complicates any national public policy
Prevalence of the Problem
To establish a framework for considering federal gang policy, it is important to
consider the data sources that indicate the pervasiveness of the gang problem.
National estimates of gangs and gang members are provided through an annual
survey administered by the National Youth Gang Center and funded through grants
from the Office of Justice Programs (OJP). The 2004 NYGC survey is discussed
below along with a brief look at data trends since the survey began in 1995. In
addition, this section will provide an overview of the latest blended-year analysis
from the NYGC of the 2002-2003 surveys, which elicited responses to slightly
different questions than are included in the standard annual survey. These two
surveys provide the only national estimates of how widespread the gang problem is
and the extent of gang involvement in certain types of criminal victimization.
National Youth Gang Survey
Since 1995, the National Youth Gang Center (NYGC) has conducted an annual
survey of a selected sample of law enforcement agencies on the characteristics of
youth gangs. The NYGC survey is federally initiated by the Office of Juvenile
Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) and administered by the Institute for
Intergovernmental Research. The NYGC survey provides the only national estimates
of gang membership and activity. The survey is based on responses of a nationally
representative sample of law enforcement agencies taken from the U.S. Census
Bureau and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) data. The information reported
in the survey concerns solely youth gangs, defined for purposes of the survey as “a
group of youths or young adults in your jurisdiction that you or other responsible
persons in your agency or community are willing to identify as a ‘gang’ member.”
The survey specifically excludes motorcycle gangs, hate or ideology groups, prison
gangs,13 and exclusively adult gangs.
The 2004 NYGC Survey. The 2004 NYGC survey, released April 2006,
examined the prevalence of gangs and their illegal activities.14 According to the
It is important to note that in much of the literature on gangs, connections exist between
street gangs and prison gangs, particularly among certain Latino gangs.
U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, OJJDP Fact Sheet, Highlights of
survey results, youth gangs were active in more than 2,900 jurisdictions that city and
county law enforcement agencies served in 2004. The survey also estimated that
approximately 760,000 gang members and 24,000 gangs were active in the United
States in 2004. The estimated number of gang members between 1996 and 2002
increased 14%. As Figure 1 indicates, in the larger cities the number of respondents
reporting a gang problem dropped slightly for the period 1999-2001 and began to rise
slightly for the 2002-2004 period, whereas in rural counties there has been a decline
between 1996 and 2004.
Figure 1. Respondents Reporting Youth Gang Problems
by Size of Jurisdiction, 1996-2004
(in averaged percentages)
Smaller Cities (2,500 to 49,999)
Larger Cities (50,000 or more)
Source: NYGC Survey, 1997-2004.
Of the 2,554 survey recipients, 2,296, or 90%, responded to the 2004 survey.15
The 2004 survey summary reported that youth gang problems were reported by all
large-city16 law enforcement agencies that responded to the survey for the years 19962004. The majority of larger cities17 law enforcement agencies that responded to the
NYGC survey (82%) also reported youth gang problems. Forty-two percent of
responding agencies serving suburban counties, 27% of agencies serving smaller
the 2004 National Youth Gang Survey, no. 1, April 2006.
For the 2004 NYGC survey, local agencies in the nationally representative sample
included all police departments serving cities with a population of 50,000 or more (n = 625);
all suburban county police and sheriff’s departments (n = 741); a randomly selected sample
of police departments serving cities with a population between 2,500 and 49,999 (n= 696);
and a randomly selected sample of rural county police and sheriffs departments (n = 492).
Cities with a population of 250,000 or more.
Cities with a population of 50,000 or more.
cities with populations below 50,000 reported youth gang problems, as did 14% of
responding rural-county law enforcement agencies.
Table 2 provides national estimates of gangs, gang members, and jurisdictions
reporting gang problems reported by the NYGC from the annual surveys of law
enforcement agencies for 1995-2004. As Table 2 indicates, the national estimates
of the number of youth gangs have been declining since 1996, whereas the estimated
number of gang members has fluctuated over the years and seems to be rising since
2001. The most notable trend has been the decline in the total number of surveyed
jurisdictions reporting gang problems, which decreased 52% between 1996 and 2004
(as shown in the table). The drop in respondents reporting such problems raises
questions about how reliably the survey results indicate whether or not the gang
problem is or is not growing.
Table 2. NYGC Estimated Youth Gang Problem in the
United States, 1995-2004
Source: U.S. Department of Justice, OJJDP, Highlights of the 2004 National Youth Gang Survey,
#01, April 2006; and Highlights of the National Youth Gang Survey, 1995-2002.
a. The OJJDP Highlights of the 2002-2003 National Youth Gangs Surveys June 2005, did not include
estimates of gangs, gang members or jurisdictions (described separately below).
N/A = Not available.
A recent detailed reanalysis of the NYGC survey data from 1996 to 2001
provides some clues as to what may underlie these disparate survey responses and
declining respondent numbers. According to NYGC reanalysis respondents from
all the largest cities (populations greater than 250,000) and the vast majority of large
cities (populations greater than 100,0000) reported gang problems in all survey years.
Law enforcement agencies in small cities (populations above 2,500 and below
50,000) reported 16% fewer gang problems over the 1996-2001 survey period. In
addition, rural and suburban counties reported significantly fewer gang problems
over the same period. In the first two survey years, nearly 60% of suburban counties
reported gang problems; however, the number of respondents declined steadily, and
by the 2001 survey, suburban county respondents had dropped to just over one-third.
Similarly, one-fourth of rural counties reported gang problems in the first two survey
years; however, the response rate of these jurisdictions also declined, so that by 2001
the response rate of rural counties was just over 1 in 10.18
There are many possible explanations for the decline in survey responses among
small town and rural jurisdictions that could affect the gang estimates. One possible
explanation could be that gang activity varies and may be more entrenched and
constant in some areas, whereas in other areas, particularly in areas of low population
density, gang activity could be a more episodic, fluctuating problem. In other areas,
gangs could be a relatively new problem that perhaps has not yet firmly established
itself in a community or area. As a result, the reported experience of gang problems
reflected in the NYGC survey for larger cities remained fairly constant over the
survey period. In smaller cities and rural and suburban counties, the decline in
reported gang problems could reflect the variability of gang problems in these
jurisdictions while simultaneously and disproportionately driving down the number
of jurisdictions responding to the NYGC survey. Another explanation might be
connected to the fact that responding to the survey is voluntary and not linked to any
programmatic requirement or receipt of federal funding, which could help explain
why law enforcement agencies, particularly in low-population jurisdictions with
limited staff, might not consider completion of the NYGC survey to be the most
important expenditure of staff time. Finally, the decline in survey respondents and
gangs or gang membership might not reflect the experiences of all jurisdictions for
reasons related to methodological issues inherent in surveys and population sampling,
including sample size and weighting of responses, which are beyond the scope of this
Although the NYGC survey may indicate that the reported youth gang problem
could be receding in some areas, respondents to the survey reported that gang-related
violence has been increasing in larger cities and some rural areas. The 2004 NYGC
survey indicated that among larger cities (population of 100,000 or more), 173 cities
reported both a gang problem and gang homicide data in 2004 (homicides involving
a gang member). Of the 171 larger cities, approximately one-fourth of all homicides
were considered gang related. In the two remaining large cities, Chicago and Los
Angeles, more than half of all homicides were considered gang related. The
combined gang related homicides in Chicago and Los Angeles accounted for nearly
half of the total number of homicides (nearly 1,000 homicides) reported in the NYGC
In addition to the survey responses on gang homicides, the NYGC survey
reports responses regarding the respondent’s perception of whether the gang problem
in their jurisdiction was improving or worsening. Of respondents to the 2004 NYGC
survey, 52% of law enforcement officers indicated that they thought their youth gang
problem was “getting worse,” while 48% reported that there was “a decrease or no
significant change” in their gang problem. According to the NYGC survey, since
Finn-Aage Esbensen, Stephen G. Tibbetts, and Larry Gaines, American Youth Gangs at
the Millennium, “Recent Patterns of Gang Problems in the United States,” by Arlen Egley,
Jr., James C. Howell, and Aline K. Major, p. 96.
According to the NYGC, Chicago and Los Angeles have historically had the highest rates
of gang-related homicides of all U.S. cities.
2001, law enforcement officers have been reporting that the gang problem in their
area is worsening: 27% in 2001, rising to 42% in 2002, and to 52% in 2004 (see
The 2002-2003 NYGC Survey. In June 2005, OJJDP issued a fact sheet,
Highlights of the 2002-2003 National Youth Gang Surveys, reporting that law
enforcement agencies serving cities with populations of 250,000 or more all continue
to report youth gang problems (95.7% responding).20 Law enforcement agencies in
jurisdictions with the smallest populations continued to be the least likely to report
gang problems, and this was especially the case in rural counties (31.7%
responding). Of the larger cities, more than one-third of the agencies reported an
annual maximum of 10 or more gang-related homicides, whereas relatively few
agencies serving rural counties and the smallest cities reported gang-related
homicides in the study period. The analysis of the surveys over both years provided
evidence that gangs, gang members, and gang-related homicides are predominately
concentrated in larger cities.
Figure 2. Status of Gang Problem in Jurisdiction of Survey
S am e
W o rs e
Source: NYGC 2002.
Although the fact sheet on the analysis of the 2002-2003 survey responses does
not provide estimates of the number of gang members for those years, based on
unpublished data for 2003, the NYGC survey estimated that the number of gang
members was approximately 750,000 nationally.21 According to the NYGC survey,
the increasing number of gang members continues to be a serious policy issue. This
trend indicates that there is still much to do at the federal level in the fight against the
U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, OJJDP, Highlights of the 20022003 National Youth Gang Surveys, OJJDP Fact Sheet #01, June 2005.
Personal communication with Arlen Egley, Jr. Ph.D., Senior Research Associate with
NYGC, operated for OJJDP by the Institute for Intergovernmental Research, September 7,
youth gang problem. Moreover, the migration of gangs into suburban and rural areas,
beyond their traditional base of operation in the urban inner-cities, has also raised
concerns about the possible spread of gang violence in areas of the country that have
not been the types of communities usually besieged by gang activities and violence.
Crime statistics are often used as one measure of gauging the impact of gangs
on communities. Much of the recent concern about gangs is attributed to the violent
crimes that are often linked to gang activities. One would assume that if violent gang
activity is increasing, this would result in a similar movement in violent crime
statistics; however, as discussed below, this has not always been the case. Two crime
data sources administered by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Uniform Crime
Report (UCR) and the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), are often used
to frame a discussion of trends in gang criminal activity.
The FBI’s UCR program compiles monthly crime reports from over 17,000
city, county, and state law enforcement agencies across the country. The UCR
provides data on violent crimes, including homicide and nonnegligent manslaughter,
forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. Property crimes of burglary, larcenytheft, motor vehicle theft, and arson are also included in the UCR.
According to the most recent UCR, the number of violent crimes decreased
1.7% between 2003 and 2004.22 The most significant decline was in cities with
populations of one million and over, where the violent crime rate dropped an average
of 5.4%. The declining trend in violent crime is not a new phenomenon. Since
peaking in 1990 at a rate of 729.6 per 100,000 inhabitants, the crime rate dropped to
a rate of 475 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2003, a decline of more than 34% over the
period.23 However, by 2004, the murder and nonnegligent manslaughter rates were
beginning to inch upward.
Juvenile Gang Homicide
Much of the concern about the youth gang problem stems from the attendant
violence associated with gangs and gang crime. Research indicates that the longer
a gang member remains in a gang, the higher the risk they will become involved in
crime, generally, and of particular concern, in violent crime. A CRS analysis of data
from the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports (SHR), provided below, offers
some insight into the commonly held view that gangs and youth gangs, particularly
older juveniles, are more likely to be involved in violent crime. A similar analysis
by the Justice Policy Institute of gang-related violent crime, as reported in the FBI’s
U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Report (2004).
CRS Report RL32824, Federal Crime Control: Background, Legislation, and Issues, by
Lisa Seghetti, Coordinator.
SHR from 1994 to 2003, concluded that over that period gang-related violent crime
declined by 73%.24
Some critics have claimed that the FBI data on gangland and juvenile gang
homicides may inadvertently give the impression that these homicides are primarily
committed by juvenile offenders. Yet juveniles are responsible for a smaller
proportion of all homicides included in this crime category than are young adults and
adults who are included in the counts of these gang-related killings.25 The SHR count
of gang-related homicides includes offenders of all ages. According to the FBI data,
a large majority of offenders of known age in gangland and juvenile gang killings are
not juveniles.26 The 2003 SHR includes records for 1,111 offenders in such killings;
age data were reported for 52.8% (n=587) of the 1,111. Among offenders of known
age, only 18.9% (n=111) were under 18 years of age, or juveniles (see Figure 3).
Because no age data are reported for 47.2% (n=524) of offenders reportedly
committing juvenile gang homicides, the exact proportion of all 1,111 offenders who
are juveniles under 18 years of age is unknown. However, to hypothesize about the
likelihood that those of unknown age are under or over 18 years of age, upper and
lower bounds for those of unknown age can be established to determine the
percentage of all 1,111 offenders who are juveniles. If the age-distribution of the
offenders of unknown age were the same as that of offenders of known age, then
18.9% (n=210) of all offenders reported in 2003 would be under 18 because that is
the proportion of offenders of known age reported in the SHR. Alternatively, if all
offenders of unknown age were under 18, then 57.2% of all offenders would be under
18 (n = 111 + 524). Conversely, if all offenders of unknown age were 18 or older (n
= 476 + 524), then 10.0% of all offenders would be under 18. Unless 85% or more
of offenders of unknown age were under 18 (n = 445), a level that is 4.5 times this
age group’s share of offenders of known age, then it could be assumed that only a
minority of the total number of offenders reported in the FBI’s SHR as gangland and
juvenile gang killings were in fact committed by juveniles. As a result, data on gang
homicides must be considered with care if they are used in isolation as an indication
of violent crime rates among juvenile gang members.
Justice Policy Institute, “Gang Violence Declined 73% from 1994-2003,” July 15, 2005,
available online at [http://126.96.36.199/releases/press050715gang-crime.dwt], accessed on
October 2, 2007.
Tom Hayden, Street Wars: Gangs and the Future of Violence (New York: The New Press,
2005), pp. 7-8.
Justice Policy Institute, Ganging Up on Communities?: Putting Gang Crime in Context
(Washington, July 15, 2005).
Figure 3. Gangland and Juvenile Gang Homicides by Age of
Number of Killings by Age of Offender
A g e o f O ffe n d e r (n = 5 8 7 )
Source: CRS Analysis of FBI, Uniform Crime Reports, Supplementary Homicide Reports, 2003.
Despite the uncertainty about whether or not juvenile homicide rates reported
in the SHR are actually perpetrated by juveniles or adults, most gang experts agree
that gang members have higher offending patterns while they are actively
participating in a gang compared with before they join and after they leave the gang.27
The historical trend in total juvenile gang murders provided by Figure 4 indicates
that juvenile gang homicides, as reported in the SHR, have decreased slightly since
Cheryl L. Maxson, “Gang Homicide A Review and Extension of the Literature,”
American Youth Gangs at the Millennium, 2004, p. 275.
2002. Overall, the rate of juvenile gang homicide in recent years continues to remain
below peak levels last reached in 1995.
Figure 4. Juvenile Gang Homicides, 1987-2005
Source: FBI, Uniform Crime Reports, Supplementary Homicide Reports, 2005.
National Crime Victimization Survey
The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) administers the National Crime
Victimization Survey (NCVS). Started in 1972, the NCVS is one of two DOJ
measures of crime in the United States and is the primary source of information on
criminal victimization. The NCVS data are obtained each year from a nationally
representative sample of 42,000 households comprising nearly 76,000 persons that
are surveyed on the frequency, characteristics, and consequences of criminal
victimization. BJS statisticians then use the survey data to estimate the likelihood
of victimization by various crimes, including rape, sexual assault, robbery, assault,
and theft for the total population and for certain segments of the population such as
women or the elderly. The NCVS provides the largest national forum for victims to
describe the impact of crime and characteristics of violent offenders.
According to the survey, victims perceived perpetrators to be gang members in
about 6% of violent victimizations between 1998 and 2003.28 As a result, the NCVS
estimates that gang members committed, on average for each year, approximately
5.7% (373,000) of the total 6.6 million violent victimizations over this period,
U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Crime
Data Brief, Violence by Gang Members, 1993-2003, NCJ 208875, June 2005.
including such nonfatal acts as rape/sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, and
simple assault. In addition, the NCVS reports that, between 1994 and 2003, the rate
of reported violent victimizations by perceived gang members declined by 73% over
the period, from 5.2 per 1,000 to 1.4 per 1,000, after having peaked at 10% of all
violent crime in 1996.29
Questions can be raised about the validity of the NCVS survey. Some have
argued that the perceptions of crime victims are not an objective measure of anything
more than an individual’s recollection of a traumatic event, and that data collected
through the survey cannot be deemed a reliable and objective source of criminal data.
However, the NCVS has been systematically field tested and the methodology has
been continually reviewed by an advisory panel of criminal justice policymakers,
social scientists, victim advocates, and statisticians working in conjunction with a
consortium of criminologists and social and survey scientists.30
National Gang Threat Assessment
The U.S. DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), issued a report, 2005
National Gang Threat Assessment,31 that provides a national perspective on the threat
posed by gangs. The report was produced in collaboration with members of the
National Alliance of Gang Investigators Associations (NAGIA), including the FBI,
the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco,
Firearms and Explosives (ATF). According to the report, gangs were pervasive
throughout society and more sophisticated and flagrant in their use of violence and
intimidation tactics. The report also found that when today’s gangs migrate across
the country, they bring drugs, weapons, and criminal activity with them. However,
the report was not backed by hard data or crime statistics, and instead was based on
a survey of law enforcement agencies and anecdotal accounts and experiences.
Law enforcement respondents to the 2005 assessment’s questionnaire identified
a number of trends across the country. Gangs were identified as the primary
distributors of drugs throughout the U.S., sometimes associating with organized
crime entities such as Mexican drug organizations and Russian organized crime
groups, and engaged in low-level criminal activities such as protecting territories and
facilitating drug-trafficking activities. Gang members were reportedly becoming
more sophisticated in their use of computers and technologies for improved
communications, facilitating criminal activity and avoiding detection by law
Information on the NCVS is available at [http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/cvict.htm],
accessed on May 20, 2007.
U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance, 2005 National Gang Threat
Assessment, National Alliance of Gang Investigators Associations, available at
[http://www.nagia.org/PDFs/2005_national_gang_threat_assessment.pdf], accessed on May
Respondents identified the migration of California-style gang culture, along
with growing Hispanic gang membership, as a particular threat as these gangs spread
into new areas and promote the gang subculture. Although outside of the scope of
this report, the expansion of outlaw motorcycle gangs into new territories and the
formation of new gangs were also identified as a threat to communities as these types
of gangs battled over territories with increasing violence. In addition, 31% of survey
respondents indicated that their communities refused to acknowledge the gang
problem, and in some cases only began to address gang issues when a high-profile
gang-related incident occurred.
The 2005 assessment identified a number of regional trends in gang activity
affecting communities in the following areas:
Northeast Region. In the Northeast, neighborhood or homegrown gangs are
increasingly visible and the growth of gangs within Hispanic immigrant communities
has brought increased violence and crime to many communities. The region is
identified as being particularly vulnerable to drug distribution by gangs because of
the compact nature of the region and the well-developed transportation system
throughout the region. Gangs are most frequently reported to be involved in crimes
relating to vandalism and graffiti, firearms possession, assault, and homicide.
The South. In the South, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), an Hispanic gang
originally formed in Los Angeles, California, by immigrants from El Salvador, is
reportedly one of the newest threats to the region, especially in Washington, DC,
Virginia, and surrounding areas. Gangs in the South are reportedly most likely to be
involved in the distribution and sale of marijuana and cocaine.
The Midwest. In the Midwest, gang activity has increased around schools and
college campuses, and gangs are concealing their affiliations and colors to hide from
law enforcement. Gangs are increasingly cooperating with one another to facilitate
crime and drug trafficking. Gang and drug activity in Indian Country has increased,
and according to the assessment’s respondents, Hispanic street gangs are using
Native Americans to transport narcotics onto reservations.
The West. In the West, gangs are reportedly using increasingly sophisticated,
well planned and executed criminal acts, especially against law enforcement officers.
Street gangs are frequently involved in the distribution of both marijuana and
methamphetamine, and the number of cases of identity and credit card theft by gang
members has increased. In addition, respondents from the West reported that gang
members were increasingly using firearms.
Characteristics of Gangs and Gang Members
Youth Gang Demographics
Historically, gangs have been most prevalent in the central cities of large urban
areas and members were primarily young adult males from homogeneous lowincome, inner-city, ghetto or barrio neighborhoods. Research indicates that most
gang members join a gang as juveniles, some only participate sporadically, and a
significant number leave, or ‘age-out,’ of gangs before they reach adulthood.32
Typically, gangs have been racially/ethnically segregated and actively involved in a
variety of criminal activities. However, there is evidence that some gangs have
evolved into hybrid gangs that are mixed ethnically, racially, and by gender.
Based on data from an in-depth analysis of survey data from the 1996-2000
NYCG surveys published in 2002 (see discussion above), law enforcement agency
respondents reported that 94% of gang members were male and 6% were female.
The analysis also indicated that 39% of youth gangs had some female members.
According to the analysis, gangs formed since 1985 were reportedly more likely to
have proliferated into less traditional areas such as small cities, towns, suburbs, and
Data on age and race/ethnicity were also collected from the NYGC surveys for
the years 1996, 1998, and 1999. In 1996, respondents reported that half of gang
members were juveniles below the age of 18 and half were adults 18 years of age and
older. By 1999, the age balance had shifted toward older gang members and,
according to survey respondents, 37% were under the age of 18. In 1999,
respondents reported that 47% of gang members were Hispanic, 31% African
American, 13% Caucasian/white, 7% Asian, and 2% other. During the three-year
period, the reported distribution of race/ethnicity remained relatively constant (see
T.P. Thornberry, D. Huizinga, and R. Loeber, “The Causes and Correlates Studies:
Findings and Policy Implications,” Juvenile Justice, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 3-19, at
[http://www.ncjrs.org/pdffiles1/ojjdp/203555.pdf], accessed on October 2, 2007.
Table 3. Estimated Demographic Characteristics of Gangs
Source: NYGC (most recent detailed information available).
More recent demographic information on race and ethnicity from the 2001
NYGC survey show slight changes in gang composition (see Figure 5).33 As Figure
5 indicates, the 2001 demographic data show increases among Hispanic (49%) and
African American (34%) gang members, declines among Caucasian/white (10%),
and Other (1%), and the percentage of Asian gangs remained the same (6%).
Figure 5. Youth Gang Demographics (2001)
Source: CRS Presentation of NYGC data (most recent detailed information available).
National Youth Gang Center, forthcoming, Frequently Asked Questions: What is the
racial and ethnic composition of youth gangs?, at [http://www.iir.com/nygc/faq.htm],
accessed on October 2, 2007.
Small towns and rural areas across the country report gang problems. In small
towns and rural areas the gang problem is not typically chronic and perpetual, but
instead is episodic and not likely to persist as it is in larger urban areas where gang
problems typically are chronic.35 In part, this is due to the fact that these areas do not
have the population base from which gangs can recruit new members. The small size
of most rural or small town gangs makes them more vulnerable to disruptions such
as arrest or members dropping out of the gang, and although all gangs are
characterized by movement among members in and out of the gang over the course
of a year, this dynamic has a more disruptive effect on the permanence of a rural,
A recent analysis of small town and rural county respondents to the NYGC’s
annual gang survey of state and local law enforcement agencies looked at responses
from agencies representing populations between 2,500 and 25,000.36 NYGC’s
analysis revealed that few of these agencies reported persistent gang problems. Of
27 rural counties responding to the survey, only 4% (1.08 counties) reported
persistent gang problems. Similarly, of the 36 small town respondents, only 10% of
small towns (3.6 small towns) reported persistent gang problems.37
The analysis of small town and rural county agencies found that agencies
reporting persistent gang problems had a higher proportion of adult-aged gang
members. In addition, jurisdictions reporting persistent gang problems were more
likely to have also had gang-related homicides in their jurisdiction than jurisdictions
reporting variable gang problems. Thus, the analysis found that the reporting of a
sudden gang problem in a particular community might not always signal the
beginning of a protracted or persistent gang problem or one which would be likely
to develop into a serious problem like that seen in some larger cities.
NYGC’s analysis identified population shifts and changing demographics in
some small towns and rural areas as potential factors contributing to the emergence
or escalation of gang problems. As in larger cities, language barriers and exclusion
of newly immigrating youths were identified as factors which could contribute to the
formation of groups that could coalesce into a gang. Examples of such possible
situations included the rapid growth of Latinos in North Carolina and Salvadorans
in northern Virginia, both situations which could potentially contribute to
development of local gang problems for these areas. However, no data were
The NYGC analysis of small town and rural gangs is based on responses to the annual
survey described at the beginning of this report from which national estimates of gangs and
gang activities are derived. However, this analysis is a separate and special analysis based
on data that are not reported in the annual summary of the NYGC survey.
James C. Howell and Arlen Egley, Jr., “Gangs in Small Towns and Rural Counties,”
NYGC Bulletin, DOJ, OJJDP, no. 1 (June 2005), p. 1.
NYGC’s analysis is based on data collected between 1996-2001. In 2002, the survey
began using a new sample of smaller city and rural counties.
Ibid., p. 2.
presented indicating that these areas were experiencing such gang problems, and the
analysis cautioned that the majority of youth gangs are “homegrown” with
memberships composed of long-time residents in the particular area. Moreover, the
analysis concluded that the formation of gangs was more likely to be the result of
failed social institutions even in small towns and rural communities.38 Broader
applicability of the NYGC analysis to other similar areas across the country is,
however, limited by the small sample size and small number of survey respondents,
among other factors, which make it difficult to infer that the data are representative
of all such jurisdictions across the nation.
Gang Presence in Schools
The threat of gang crime and violence exists in many schools across the nation.
According to an OJJDP report, youth gangs are linked with serious crime problems
in elementary and secondary schools in the United States.39 The OJJDP study
indicated that the incidence of several factors, including household income and drug
availability, were positively related to the reported presence of gangs in schools.40
The analysis also found a high correlation between gangs and the incidence of
student victimization in schools. However, the authors concluded that although the
presence of gangs in a school is correlated with criminal activity, it was not clear that
gangs were a direct cause of criminal victimization at schools.41
The School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victims Survey
periodically surveys youth in school about the presence of gangs in their schools (see
Table 4). From the available data provided in Table 4, survey respondents reported
a gang presence in schools that increased dramatically between 1989 and 1995, an
increase of 92%. As Table 4 indicates, the percentage of students reporting a gang
presence dropped precipitously between 1995 and 1999, a 41% decline; the
percentage again rose and remained fairly constant at just over 20% in 2001 and
Table 4. Percentage of Students Reporting Gang
Presence in Schools
Source: U.S. DOJ, BJS, School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victims Survey, for the
most recent years available.
Ibid., p. 3.
U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, OJJDP, Juvenile Justice Bulletin,
“Youth Gangs in Schools,” James C. Howell and James P. Lynch (August 2000).
Ibid., pp. 5-6.
Ibid., p. 7.
Of the students surveyed, students in urban schools were significantly more
likely to report the presence of street gangs at their schools than were students in
either suburban or non-metro schools (see Table 5). In every residence category,
whether student respondents lived in an urban, suburban, or non-metro area, the
percentage of students reporting a gang presence increased significantly between
1989 and 1995. Although the percentage of students surveyed dropped between 1995
and 2003, the reported gang presence remained significantly higher in 2003 than it
had been in 1989. The proportional increase between 1989 and 2003 was greatest in
non-metro areas (57.7% increase).
Table 5. Percentage of Students Reporting Gang
Presence By Residence
Source: School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victims Survey, for the most recent years
Hispanic and black students were more likely than white students to report that
there was a gang presence in their schools in 2003 (see Table 6). Among students
aged 12-18, Hispanic students in every residence category, except rural, reported the
highest percentage of gang presence in their schools. Black students reported the
highest percentage of gang presence in rural schools.
Table 6. Percentage of Students, Aged 12-18,
Who Reported Gangs Were Present at School
During the Previous Six Months, 2003
Source: School Crime and Safety: 2004, November 2004.
Students in public schools were more likely to report the presence of gangs than
students in private schools; 35% of urban public schools surveyed reported the
presence of gangs compared to only 6% in surveyed urban private schools. Similarly,
in suburban public schools students reported 20%, whereas only 2% in suburban
private schools reported a gang presence at school. In rural public schools the rate
of reported gang presence was 12% compared to 4% in rural private schools.42
Gangs remain a serious concern for school safety and many advocate that
particular attention should be given to signs of gang activity in schools. Gang-related
fights and assaults are of a different nature and tend to escalate to other related, and
occasionally larger, conflicts that can spill over into the neighborhood.43 Some have
argued that school-based, gang-related activity is often not reported, perhaps in part
because of the negative attention that acknowledging a gang problem may bring to
the school, parents, and surrounding community.44
Schools play a critical role in the socialization and development of children, and
this is especially the case for at-risk children from strained families.45 According to
researchers, schools typically respond to gang problems by suppression methods that
include getting rid of the “problem” by separating gang members from the other
students. Some researchers have concluded that this type of tactic can further
marginalize at-risk youth, bond them more completely to gangs, and reinforce their
loyalty to gangs.46 These and other studies have led some researchers to conclude
that a more balanced use of prevention, intervention, and suppression strategies
starting in elementary school could help to reduce gang violence in schools.47
Latino Gangs: MS-13, A Case Study
In recent years, there has been growing attention in the press and among policymakers on gang violence that is linked to gangs in Central America. Much of the
concern about such gang members can be linked to the recent spread of certain Latino
gangs from their origins in Los Angeles, California, into major urban and rural
communities throughout the United States. Connections between gangs in the United
States and gangs in other countries including Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and
Honduras have heightened concerns among U.S. policymakers about the threat these
gangs pose to domestic security.48
The Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang was originally formed in Los Angeles,
California, by refugees and immigrants from El Salvador who saw the formation of
their own gang as a way to neutralize the gang threat to their community posed by the
U.S. DOJ, BJS, School Crime and Safety: 2004, p. 47.
Kenneth S. Trump, “Gangs, Violence, and Safe Schools,” Gangs in America III, 3rd
Edition, ed. C. Ronald Huff (2002), pp. 121-122.
Ibid., p. 124.
James Diego Vigil, “Streets and Schools: How Educators Can Help Chicano Marginalized
Gang Youth,” Harvard Educational Review, vol. 69, no. 3 (Fall 1999), p. 272.
Ibid., p. 278.
K. Trump, “Gangs, Violence, and Safe Schools,” pp. 126-128.
For more information on Latin American gangs, see CRS Report RS22141, Gangs in
Central America, by Clare Ribando.
18th Street Gang and others. MS-13 is reportedly one of the newest threats to the
Washington, DC, metropolitan area, including the suburbs of Northern Virginia,
Baltimore, MD, and other areas along the East Coast. According to testimony at a
recent congressional hearing, the MS-13 gang is “estimated to have some 8,000 to
10,000 hardcore members [in the United States].”49
Although the estimated number of MS-13 gang members is a small fraction of
the total number of U.S. gang members, they are reputed to be more violent. The
MS-13 gang has followed the migratory pattern of Salvadoran immigrants, fanning
out across the United States, and up and down the East Coast, in an effort to establish
itself as a “national” gang organization. It is, by most estimates, the largest and most
well organized of the Latino gangs, although other Latino gangs of concern across
the country include the 18th Street Gang of West Los Angeles, the Latin Kings, and
the Surenos 13. Many of these gangs that originated in California have also
proliferated across the country, to some extent, but not to the extent of MS-13.
The FBI, other federal agencies, and local law enforcement agencies view the
MS-13 gang as a national and international threat that must be addressed on several
fronts. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) bureau of the Department
of Homeland Security (DHS) launched an operation focused on helping state and
local law enforcement with the gang problem. ICE officials began an effort,
Operation Community Shield, to use their immigration authority to detain and deport
gang members of MS-13 from the United States.50 The ICE effort focused on the
cities of Los Angeles, Miami, Baltimore, Newark, and Washington, DC, and
involved intelligence from state and local law enforcement, as well as the FBI, the
Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS), and ATF.
On August 26, 2005, the ATF led a raid on MS-13 gang members in which 19
individuals were arrested and charged with conspiracy to intimidate the communities
of Silver Spring, Langley Park, and Hyattsville, MD, through murders, attempted
murders, and kidnappings. These MS-13 suspects were named in a federal
indictment alleging that the gang’s activities violated federal criminal racketeering
laws.51 These Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statutes
were originally designed to prosecute and convict organized crime groups like La
Cosa Nostra under the premise that the violent operations of the Mafia were
organized, structured, had leadership, and involved high-level, serious criminal
activities. Hence, the organization and hierarchical structure of the MS-13 gang,
rather than their violent criminal activities, will be what determines whether
prosecution of MS-13 gang members under RICO statutes will be successful.
Testimony of FBI Assistant Director-Criminal Investigative Division Chris Swecker, in
U.S. Congress, House of Representatives International Relations Subcommittee on the
Western Hemisphere, Gangs and Crime in Latin America, hearings April 20, 2005.
U.S. DHS, ICE, “ICE Launches Operation Community Shield, Arrest 103 MS-13 Gang
Members in 6 Major U.S. Cities,” News Release, March 14, 2005, available at
[http://www.ice.gov/pi/investigations/comshield/index.htm], accessed on October 2, 2007.
For more information on RICO statutes see, CRS Report 96-950, RICO: A Brief Sketch,
by Charles Doyle.
Conviction under the federal RICO statutes carries a maximum sentence of life
imprisonment without parole.
Gangs and the “Transnational Threat”
The prominence of gangs composed of recent immigrants from Central
America, some of whose members are in the United States illegally, raises concerns
about the ability of gang members to cross the southern border of the United States
undetected. The porous southern U.S. border is often the method by which illegal
goods and immigrants are smuggled into the country.52 The continuing international
connections between such Central American gangs raise the possibility that illegal
entrants could pay gangs to smuggle them into the United States, and as such
terrorists could also be illegally smuggled across the U.S. border by gangs.
The decision of DHS to crack down on MS-13 (discussed above) further
indicates the significance of the transnational threat posed by gangs. The
involvement of gangs in smuggling weapons, humans, and drugs has long been
established. However, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there are heightened
concerns that gang smuggling interests may be shared by terrorists groups interested
in crossing the U.S. border illegally and undetected. Concern about the convergence
of these smuggling interests may have been the impetus behind the sharpened focus
of DHS on transnational gangs and their illegal activities, and particularly on Latino
gangs, as a threat to domestic security.53
Despite the specter of transnational Latino gangs undermining domestic
security, no evidence has been found linking U.S. gangs, regardless of their
members’ immigration status, with the smuggling of terrorists into the country. The
2005 National Gang Threat Assessment concluded that despite their vigilance in
looking for associations between gangs and international terrorist groups, few
investigators identified any associations, and those who did described “the
connections in terms of speculation [that was] supported by little evidence.”54
Furthermore, ICE recently reported that of the 1,057 gang members and associates
arrested since February 2005 as a part of its recent crackdown on gang members
crossing the southern U.S. border, none were found to have any terrorist ties.55
For more information on smuggling and related issues on the southwest border, see CRS
Report RL33106, Border Security and the Southwest Border: Background, Legislation, and
Issues, by Lisa Seghetti, coordinator.
Testimony of FBI Assistant Director-Criminal Investigative Division Chris Swecker, in
U.S. Congress, House of Representatives International Relations Subcommittee on the
Western Hemisphere, Gangs and Crime in Latin America, hearings April 20, 2005.
U.S. DOJ Bureau of Justice Assistance, 2005 National Gang Threat Assessment,
Congressional Quarterly, Homeland Security, ICE Sweep Nets Nearly 600 Gangsters —
but No Terrorists So Far, by Eileen Sullivan, CQ Staff, (August 1, 2005).
Federal Anti-Gang Programs and Initiatives
For most of the history of gangs, the crimes they committed were generally the
responsibility of state and local law enforcement. Gangs pose a significant threat to
public safety, and as gangs have spread across the country the interest in finding
adequate solutions to the problem has included all levels of government. In the midto late-1980s and early 1990s, Congress passed legislation federalizing certain gangrelated crimes and providing additional penalties for individuals convicted under
these laws. In addition, the federal government has taken an active role in helping
state and local jurisdictions develop anti-gang responses through support for research
on gangs, and through grant programs to help jurisdictions develop effective gang
prevention and intervention strategies.
Developing an effective response to gangs, however, is complicated by the range
of gang criminal activities (from juvenile delinquency to serious violent crimes by
criminal organizations). Moreover, gang activities vary from community to
community, making it difficult to establish national programs or provide uniform
assistance. Strategies developed by the Congress to address the gang problem have
included (1) prevention, aimed at preventing youths from joining gangs and engaging
in gang behavior, by educating children and teens about the dangers of joining gangs;
(2) intervention, aimed at diverting at-risk youth from crime, by providing
alternatives such as after-school programs, counseling, work-study, conflictresolution, etc.; (3) suppression, law enforcement tactics that usually involve arrest,
prosecution, and incarceration; or (4) a comprehensive approach which would
combine some or all of the strategies to address the spectrum of the gang problem.
Selected Congressional Action
The federal focus on gangs began in the late 1980s when the OJJDP funded a
research project dealing with drug use and delinquency among dropouts and gang
members in New York City.56 In 1987, OJJDP, in cooperation with the University
of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, initiated a major research and
development program to address the gang problem. The project, the National Youth
Gang Suppression and Intervention Program, was a four-stage process that included
an assessment of the gang problem, the development of a model program for
preventing youth gangs, a review of the literature on gangs, and a national survey of
youth gang problems and programs.57
The federal response to youth gangs in the late 1980s was inextricably linked
to drug trafficking and violence associated with what is often referred to as the “crack
cocaine epidemic.” The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 (P.L. 100-690) addressed the
Jeffrey Fagan, Drug Use and Delinquency Among Dropouts and Gang Members, DOJ
OJJDP, Grant #87JNCX0012, 1987.
Irving Spergel and Ronald L. Chance, National Youth Gang Suppression and Intervention
Program, National Institute of Justice Research in Action, June 1991, pp. 21-22.
gang problem by establishing grant programs within OJP58 and OJJDP designed to
address a number of gang-related issues, including the prevention and treatment
related to juvenile gangs, drug use, and drug trafficking. Further congressional action
specifically on gangs did not occur until 1994, when legislation was enacted that took
a more comprehensive approach to addressing crime and the youth gang problem.
The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (P.L. 103-322)
contained several anti-gang-related initiatives, including new or enhanced penalties
for certain crimes that were often associated with gangs. The act provided new or
enhanced penalties for gang-related crimes by (1) imposing an additional term of
imprisonment of up to 10 years for involvement in a serious federal drug offense or
federal violent felony affecting interstate or foreign commerce, (2) permitting the
prosecution of youths 13 years of age and above if the juvenile possessed a firearm
during a crime of violence, and (3) tripling the penalty for employing children to
distribute drugs near schools and playgrounds. The law also authorized funding for
a new grant program, the Gang Resistance Education and Training grants
(G.R.E.A.T.) to state and local law enforcement and prevention organizations to be
used for gang-prevention activities in schools. It also permitted existing grant
programs, the Local Law Enforcement Block Grant and the Edward Byrne Memorial
Grant programs,59 to be used for various purposes, including multi-jurisdictional gang
task forces. The act also directed the AG, in consultation with the Secretary of the
Treasury, to develop a national strategy to coordinate gang-related investigations by
federal law enforcement agencies.
In addition, P.L. 103-322 authorized the Community Oriented Policing Services
(COPS) program, which was designed to put more police officers on the streets and
make communities safer. The COPS program was generally designed to provide
grants to state and local law enforcement agencies to fight crime at the local level
through the strategy of having a larger police presence in high crime areas. Thus,
COPS, by providing grants that could be used in preventing street crime, was
indirectly providing assistance for fighting gangs and gang-related crime.
During the 107th Congress, anti-gang provisions were included in the 21st
Century Department of Justice Appropriations Authorization Act (P.L. 107-273).
The law included a new Juvenile Accountability Block Grant (JABG) program that
provides grants to states for strengthening the juvenile justice system. The grants can
be used to fund projects designed to prevent and reduce the rate of participation of
juveniles in gangs that commit crimes (particularly violent crimes), including the
unlawful use of firearms and other weapons, or that unlawfully traffic in drugs.
The law created the Edward Byrne Memorial Grants, which were recently replaced by the
Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program (P.L. 108-447) and
provide grants to state and local and tribal law enforcement agencies for a number of
purposes that can include anti-gang initiatives.
Funding formerly provided through the Edward Byrne Memorial Formula Block Grant
program is now funded through the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistant Grant (JAG)
program (P.L. 108-447). For additional information, see CRS Report RS22416, Edward
Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program: Legislative and Funding History, by
JABG funds can also be used to assist prosecutors to address drug, gang, and youth
violence problems more effectively, and for acquiring technology, equipment, and
training designed to help prosecutors with identifying and expeditiously prosecuting
violent juvenile offenders.
More recently, the FY2005 Consolidated Appropriations Act (P.L. 108-447)
earmarked $10 million to establish a National Gang Intelligence Center at the FBI.
The center is to be a clearing house of information from the FBI, ATF, and other
federal law enforcement agencies on gang intelligence on a national and international
level. The act also appropriated funding for hiring additional FBI agents, analysts,
and support staff to address the most violent gangs throughout the country.
Selected Proposals and Initiatives
Research on youth gangs indicates that each gang and each community is
unique, so it is difficult to generalize and develop a “one-size-fits-all” strategy to
address the issue. Over the last two decades, there have been many anti-gang
projects and initiatives that have been developed and implemented in communities
across the country. Federal, state, and local governments have actively developed
approaches designed to prevent or stop gang involvement in violence, drug
trafficking, firearms offenses, and other related activities of concern.
Research and experimentation on what might effectively end the gang problem
has been a busy area of juvenile delinquency research. Currently, a mixture of
approaches is being tried across the nation, but most programs attempt to integrate
some component of prevention, intervention, and suppression strategies. Even
municipalities have passed legislation and/or city ordinances targeting gangs. This
section of the report will highlight a few of the most recent programs and strategies
that have been and are being used to prevent youths from joining gangs and reduce
gang membership and gang violence. The section will summarize some of the
current federal programs and initiatives, followed by a generalized summary of state
and local anti-gang initiatives.
Because gangs are involved in various types of criminal behavior, including
juvenile delinquency, crimes of violence, property crime, firearms violations, and
drug trafficking, various DOJ agencies are involved in fighting gang activities
directly and indirectly. For example, through efforts to stop drug trafficking and
crime, generally, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is working to address part of
the gang problem to the extent that gangs are involved in drug trafficking. The U.S.
Attorney’s Office works to prosecute federal gang cases that are investigated by the
FBI, or that involve the ATF, and as such are involved in battling gang criminal
activity as it relates to, or involves, firearms violations and falls into their purview.
In addition, several federal agencies outside of DOJ administer programs that
indirectly address some aspects of the gang problem. These efforts take varied
approaches to countering gang activities. For example, the Department of Education
administers grant programs designed to prevent juvenile delinquency and promote
safe schools, which can have anti-gang components.
Compassion Capital Fund. In his January 2005 State of the Union address,
President Bush proposed an initiative to provide $150 million over three years to
community and faith-based groups to help troubled youth avoid gangs and prison.
The initiative was proposed as a part of the Compassion Capital Fund (CCF) to help
with building “service capacity and knowledge among faith- and community-based
organizations and encourage replication of effective approaches to better meet the
needs of low-income persons and families.”60
FBI Efforts: The Safe Streets and Violent Crimes Initiative (SSVCI).
In January 1992, the FBI announced the SSVCI, an initiative designed to allow the
Special Agent in Charge of each FBI field division to establish long-term, proactive
task forces focused on reducing violent crime.61 The task forces placed specific
emphasis on the identification of major violent street gangs and/or drug enterprises
of national scope by applying the same methods used to successfully wage war on
traditional organized crime. According to FBI testimony before the Senate Judiciary
Committee, one of the first gangs to be targeted by the gang task force was the MS13 gang. Moreover, the work of the task force enabled the U.S. Attorney for the
Central District of California, Debra Yang, to successfully use statutes to prosecute
the leaders of the 18th Street Gang and the Mexican Mafia, a prison gang.62 The need
for intelligence sharing forced uniformity and facilitated the FBI’s development of
an integrated information sharing system for tracking criminal gang activit y through
a national system capable of sharing information by computers in “real time.”
According to the FBI, the task force concept increases the effectiveness and
productivity of limited personnel and logistical resources, avoids duplication of
investigations, and expands the cooperation and communication among law
enforcement agencies. In response to the threat from gangs, the FBI established the
Safe Streets Violent Gang Task Forces (SSVGTF) to coordinate the efforts of law
enforcement at all levels of government and use the same statutes, intelligence, and
investigative techniques against violent gangs that are used to fight organized crime.
Between FY2001 and FY2006, the SSVGTF accomplished the following:
344 RICO indictments
For additional information on the CCF, see CRS Report RS21844, The Compassion
Capital Fund: Brief Facts and Current Developments, by Joe Richardson.
Testimony of FBI Special Agent Grant Ashley, Assistant Director, Criminal Investigative
Division, in U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Judiciary, Combating Gang Violence in
America: Examining Effective Federal, State, and Local Law Enforcement Strategies,
(September 17, 2003).
510 other racketeering statute indictments.63
For FY2006, Congress appropriated $5 million for SSVGTFs. The Revised
Continuing Appropriations Resolution, 2007 (P.L. 110-5) and the Consolidated
Appropriations Act, 2008 (P.L. 110-161) did not specify funding for SSVGTFs.
FBI National Gang Strategy (NGS). The FBI’s NGS is designed to
incorporate the investigative and prosecutorial practices that had been successful in
the Organized Crime/Drug Program National Strategy.64 The NGS promotes the
sharing of information among federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies,
which in turn helps the FBI identify violent gangs with coordinated investigations
that support prosecutions. The Strategy is a component of DOJ’s overall AntiViolence Crime Initiative, which is designed to promote the development of
cooperative strategies among corrections, parole and probation, and law enforcement
to work together and share information on gang-involved offenders.
FBI National Gang Intelligence Center (NGIC). Pursuant to P.L. 108447, the FBI is in the process of establishing an NGIC. According to testimony at a
congressional hearing, the NGIC “will enable the FBI and its local, state, and federal
partners to centralize and coordinate the national collection of intelligence on gangs
in the United States and then analyze, share, and disseminate” the information to the
law enforcement community.65 The NGIC, maintained and operated by the FBI,
received appropriations of $4.7 million for FY2006. For FY2007, P.L. 110-5 did not
specify funding for the NGIC. For FY2008, P.L. 110-161 similarly did not specify
funding for the NGIC.
FBI’s Criminal Investigations of Gangs. In September 2005, the DOJ
Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a report on how terrorism and the
September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks transformed the FBI’s investigative priorities.66
Among the FBI’s traditional criminal investigations, the OIG reported that the FBI
did not reduce the number of agents involved in combating violent gangs between
FY2000 and FY2004.67 Despite the “reprioritization” of the FBI’s operations to
focus on stopping terrorist attacks, the number of FBI Field Agents used for
FBI, About Us - Our Post 9/11 Transformation - Fighting Gang Violence, available at
[http://www.fbi.gov/aboutus/transformation/gangs.htm], accessed on October 2, 2007.
In the Spotlight - Gangs, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National
Criminal Justice Reference Service, available at [http://www.ncjrs.gov/spotlight/
gangs/summary.html], accessed on May 20, 2007. For more detailed information, see
[http://www.fbi.gov/publications/strategicplan/strategicplanfull.pdf], accessed on October
Testimony of FBI Assistant Director-Criminal Investigative Division Chris Swecker, in
U.S. Congress, House of Representatives International Relations Subcommittee on the
Western Hemisphere, Gangs and Crime in Latin America, hearings April 20, 2005.
U.S. Department of Justice Office of Inspector General, The External Effects of the
Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Reprioritization Efforts, Audit Report 05-37, September
Ibid., p. 68.
investigating violent gangs increased from 266 in FY2000, to 315 in FY2004.68 The
number of violent gang cases opened by the FBI increased from 495 in FY2000, to
784 in FY2004, an increase of 58% during a period when the number of all other
criminal enterprise cases declined.69
For most of the FBI’s traditional criminal investigations in FY2004, fewer field
agents were available as counterterrorism became the bureau’s priority. In FY2004,
there were 2,200 fewer field agents investigating criminal matters and the FBI opened
45% fewer criminal cases. However, the bureau’s focus on fighting violent gang
crime remained a priority.70
Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF). The
OIG’s report also included data on other criminal enterprise programs. OCDETF,
a congressionally funded program administered by the Criminal Division of DOJ that
focuses on the disruption and dismantling of major drug trafficking organizations,
includes a gangs component. FBI agents participate in OCDETF efforts to combat
drug traffickers and violent gangs. Although the number of agents utilized for all
OCDETF matters dropped from 1,062 in FY2000 to 540 in FY2004 (49% decrease),
the number of agents used on gang-related matters only dropped from 171 in FY2000
to 120 in FY2004 (30% decrease).71 For FY2006, Congress appropriated $489.4
million for OCDETF. The Revised Continuing Appropriations Resolution, 2007 (P.L.
110-5) specified FY2007 of $494.8 million for OCDETF activities. For FY2008,
P.L. 110-161 included $497.9 million for the task force.
The Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.) Program.
The G.R.E.A.T. program, administered by OJP, is designed to prevent children and
young adolescents from joining gangs through a school-based curriculum presented
by a law enforcement officer. The G.R.E.A.T program differs from other gang
prevention programs because it is not directed at active gang members or at-risk
youth, but instead is a broader program for all youths. The curriculum includes the
following learning components: (1) crimes, their victims, and the impact of crime
on the school and the neighborhood; (2) cultural sensitivity and prejudice and how
these factors affect the school and neighborhood; (3) conflict resolution techniques
to create an atmosphere of understanding that will help address interpersonal
problems and solutions; (4) how to satisfy at-risk youth’s basic social needs without
joining a gang; (5) the diverse responsibilities of people in an at-risk youth’s school
and neighborhood; and (6) the need for personal goal setting and ways to establish
short- and long-term goals.
The outcomes of the program are determined by followup surveys conducted
between 12 and 18 months after completion of the program. The surveys indicate
that students report lower levels of gang affiliation and delinquency, including drug
use, minor offenses, property crimes, and crimes against other persons. When
Ibid., p. 56.
Ibid., p. 57.
Ibid., p. 68.
compared to the control group of students, those who had participated in the
G.R.E.A.T. program reported fewer delinquent friends, more positive attitudes
towards police, more negative attitudes about gangs, higher self-esteem, more
commitment to success at school, higher levels of attachment to both mothers and
fathers, and less likelihood of acting impulsively.
From October 1994 through December 2001, the National Institute of Justice
(NIJ) funded a national evaluation of the G.R.E.A.T. program.72 The evaluation had
two purposes: (1) to find out if the program’s components were being executed as
designed, and (2) to observe the actual delivery of the program by law enforcement
officers in the classrooms. The evaluation included both a cross-sectional and a
longitudinal survey of middle school youths in selected locations.
The evaluation used a control group of students and a group of students that had
participated in the G.R.E.A.T. program. The cross-sectional survey obtained
information from 5,935 eighth graders in 315 classrooms at 42 different schools
located within 11 diverse law enforcement jurisdictions across the country. The
cross-sectional survey found that self-reported gang membership was significantly
related to self-reported juvenile delinquency. The survey also revealed higher than
expected levels of female and white youth gang members (38% female, 25% white).73
The results of the cross-sectional survey supported the effectiveness of the program.
These results were similar to previous evaluations of the program that had yielded
modestly positive results.74
In addition to evaluating the G.R.E.A.T. program, a longitudinal study was
conducted in six cities consisting of 3,500 students in 22 classrooms in 22 schools.75
One year after participating in the G.R.E.A.T. program, the differences between the
students who had participated in the program and those who had not were small. The
longitudinal evaluation did not find significant differences in the groups of student
participants until three or four years after program exposure.76 Overall, the
evaluation found that the program’s outcomes measures were greater “than would be
expected by chance.”77
Finn-Aage Esbensen, Adrienne Freng, Terrance J. Taylor, Dana Peterson, D. Wayne
Osgood, “Final Evaluation of the Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.)
Program,” Responding to Gangs, Winifred L. Reed, Scott H. Decker, eds., DOJ, OJP, NIJ,
NCJ 190351, July 2002, pp. 139-167.
Curry, G. David, Decker, Scott H., Confronting Gangs: Crime and Community (2003),
Ibid., p. 369.
The cities participating in the program were: Philadelphia, PA, Portland, OR, Phoenix,
AZ, Omaha, NE, Lincoln, NE (non-gang city), and Las Cruces, NM (small border town).
Esbensen, Finn-Aage, Osgood, D. Wayne, Taylor, Terrance J.K., Peterson, Dana, Frang,
Adrienne, “How Great is G.R.E.A.T.? Results from a Longitudinal Quasi-Experimental
Design,” Criminology and Public Policy, vol. 1, no. 1 (November 2001), pp. 108-109.
American Youth Gangs at the Millennium, “Gang Prevention A Case Study of a Primary
Prevention Program,” by Finn-Aage Esbensen, Dana Peterson, Terrance J. Taylor, Adrienne
The evaluation of the G.R.E.A.T program concluded that significant reductions
in gang membership or future reductions in delinquent behavior could not be credited
to the program’s nine-hour curriculum. However, the report credited the program
with producing educational benefits and improved police relations with students and
their communities. Advocates of the program maintain that G.R.E.A.T. can
contribute to anti-gang goals as part of a broader program of prevention and
Under Title V - Incentive Grants of the Juvenile Justice Programs, Congress
included appropriations of $25 million for FY2006 for the G.R.E.A.T. program (P.L.
109-108). The Revised Continuing Appropriations Resolution (P.L. 110-5) did not
specify funding for the G.R.E.A.T. program. For FY2008, P.L. 110-161 provided
$18.8 million for the program.
Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN). Project Safe Neighborhoods is an
initiative designed to reduce gun violence. Although not specifically focused on
youth gangs, the PSN program is an important part of reducing gun violence among
the youth and reducing the use of guns in other criminal acts. The program includes
five elements considered essential for a successful gun crime reduction strategy. The
program is organized through the U.S. Attorney’s Offices in 94 federal judicial
districts across the county. The program has received funding of more than one
million dollars since its inception in 2001. Funds can be used to hire new federal,
state, and local prosecutors; provide training; hire research and community outreach
support; and develop and promote effective prevention and deterrence efforts.
Under the PSN program, each U.S. Attorney develops a plan incorporating three
national priorities: (1) increased prosecution of violent organizations by aggressively
using federal conspiracy, racketeering, narcotics, and all other available laws to
attack and punish violent drug traffickers, violent street gangs, and violent robbery
rings; (2) strict enforcement of all federal laws against illegal gun traffickers and their
suppliers, with an emphasis on those gun traffickers who supply illegal firearms to
violent organizations and to juveniles; and (3) aggressive enforcement of federal
firearms laws against those persons prohibited from possessing firearms or who use
firearms in furtherance of illegal activities, including those persons denied under the
Brady Act.78 The strategic plans are required to reflect the unique features and
problems of the particular district, but with the goal of reducing the levels of gun
Training is provided for participants in PSN through the collaborative efforts of
several DOJ agencies, including ATF, who conduct the training of prosecutors,
agents, and law enforcement officers involved in gun crime cases. U.S. Attorneys
are encouraged to design and conduct their own training programs at the local level.
Freng, & D. Wayne Osgood (2004), p. 363.
The Brady Act (Brady Handgun Control Act), an amendment to the 1993 amendments of
the Gun Control Act of 1968 (P.L. 103-159), requires a waiting period of up to five days for
handgun purchases and requires purchasers to undergo a background check (18 U.S.C.
Community outreach, public awareness campaigns, and public service
announcements are all methods that can be used to convey the PSN message and get
the support of the local community. U.S. Attorneys are encouraged to regularly
assess the effectiveness of their plans, noting emerging trends, and they are required
to report to DOJ on the status of their PSN strategy.
According to DOJ, the PSN program is responsible for a significant increase in
the number of federal firearms prosecutions, which are up 76.2% since the initiative
began. DOJ further notes that federal firearms defendants convicted of federal
firearms offenses are being sentenced to significant jail time.79 For FY2007, The
Revised Continuing Appropriations Resolution (P.L. 110-5) did not specify funding
for PSN. For FY2008, P.L. 110-161 did not include specific funding for the
OJJDP Gang Reduction Program. In FY2004, OJJDP initiated the Gang
Reduction Program (GRP), a pilot program designed to reduce youth gang crime and
violence. GRP is underway in four pilot sites (East Los Angeles, CA; North Miami
Beach, FL; Milwaukee, WI; and Richmond, VA) in targeted areas of approximately
five square miles. The pilot sites were selected because these communities were
characterized as already having significant existing anti-gang program investment,
strong indications of citizen involvement in these anti-gang efforts, and high rates of
crime and gang activity. The program is designed to integrate state, local, and federal
resources to focus on prevention, intervention, and suppression with state-of-the-art,
research-based practices. The program is designed to identify the needs at the
individual, family, and community level and address those needs with a coordinated,
comprehensive response. A three-year evaluation is being conducted by the Urban
Institute to assess program implementation, examine outcomes related to reductions
in crime and gang-activity, improvements in “prosocial” or positive activities for atrisk youth, and improved protective factors in the lives of high-risk youth.
Selected State and Local Programs and Strategies
States and cities have long been developing local approaches to the gang
problem. Some of the areas that these initiatives and programs fall under are
prevention, intervention, and suppression of youth gang activity. The following
discussion is not intended to be a comprehensive review of the numerous anti-gang
programs that have been initiated and developed by state and local governments, but
a mere sampling of initiatives that are considered models for programs that may be
generally applicable and replicable in other communities.80
Project Safe Neighborhoods, Executive Summary and other information on the program
is available at the PSN website at [http://www.psn.gov/], accessed on May 18, 2007.
For more detailed information on programs and initiatives designed for addressing the
gang problem, see U.S. DOJ, OJP, NIJ, Responding to Gangs: Evaluation and Research,
July 2002, pp. 329, available at [http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/190351.pdf], accessed
on October 2, 2007.
Prevention programs developed by states and localities include those designed
to improve the living conditions of at-risk youth and provide them with opportunities
to replace gang activities with safer and more beneficial activities and services.
Examples of these types of programs include providing alternative recreation
opportunities where at-risk or high-risk youth and others involved in the juvenile
justice system can be involved in safe alternatives to being out on the streets late at
night. Prevention programs can also include early intervention programs for parents
and infants or small children designed to provide parental training and childhood
skills development, including preschool for early social and cognitive development.
Preventive programs can also include school-based programs, to ensure in-school
safety and control, in-school enrichment procedures, with formal links to communitybased programs, as well as afterschool activities to keep youths safe and involved in
recreational or educational activities such as mentoring programs.
Intervention programs seek to coax youth away from gangs and reduce the
criminal activities of gangs, and can include such services as employment counseling,
job placement assistance, advocacy assistance with the police and courts, and other
social assistance such as health care and other services. Boys & Girls Clubs across
the country provide gang intervention programs that provide life-skills development,
education, and employment programs. Other programs are designed to provide
alternatives to gang life through jobs in the community or through the enterprises
developed by the project to provide employment opportunities for participants. One
example of a California-based program funds a daycare center, a homeless shelter,
an alternative school for gang members, and a tattoo-removal service. Another
example of a gang intervention initiative developed by a faith-based organization
provides jobs and refurbishes neighborhoods, including removing graffiti and
Suppression programs are also designed to reduce gang crime by deterring such
crimes through the arrest, prosecution, and incarceration of gang members. As early
as 1979, Los Angeles, CA, created a prosecutorial gang suppression program through
the city’s District Attorney’s office that targeted serious and violent juvenile gangrelated crime. The formation of specialized “gang units” among local police
departments improved intelligence gathering, investigation, and suppression of gangs
through the use of gang sweeps, targeting gang gathering places or “hotspots,” and
intensified patrols in communities plagued by gang violence and drug trafficking to
bring pressure to bear on gangs. In addition, there has been an emphasis on reducing
handgun violence among gang members through various initiatives, often supported
through grants from the federal COPS program (previously discussed).
Numerous communities across the country have used combinations of these
examples and techniques to develop their anti-gang strategies. Community policing
has been one strategy used to respond to gang activity, whereas other communities
have approached the problem with strategies that combine local law enforcement
with federal and state agencies. Many of these multiagency initiatives have been
developed in Los Angeles, and other cities of southern California, where the gang
problem is endemic. However, an influential multiagency project was developed in
Boston, Massachusetts. Known as the Boston Gun Project, or Operation Ceasefire,
the program is considered a “model” multiagency gang suppression initiative.81
Under the program, gang violence is tracked to the neighborhoods where it occurs,
there is an explicit communication campaign to let the community and gang members
know that there will be zero tolerance of all gang violence, and that those offenders
who violate these conditions will receive long prison sentences.
California’s Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act
California has long had an endemic gang problem and, as a result, has been at
the forefront of innovative approaches to respond to gang activity. The Street
Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention (STEP) Act enacted on September 23, 1988,82
combines prevention, intervention, and suppression approaches to the gang problem.
The STEP defines what constitutes a “criminal street gang,” what offenses are “gang
offenses,” and imposes penalty enhancements for gang-related crimes. Once an
individual has been convicted under the STEP Act, the law requires the offender to
register with the local law enforcement agency on release from prison, and failure to
register is a misdemeanor offense, which if ignored can lead to further imprisonment.
Under the STEP Act, targeted gang members are notified that they can be
prosecuted under this law and subjected to its penalties. The police and/or
prosecutors then gather evidence on targeted gang members that fit the act’s
definition, and the information is presented to the court for a judicial order. Once a
judicial order has been issued, convicted targeted gang members will have their
imprisonment penalties enhanced.83
Several states have followed California’s example and have enacted, or have
considered enacting, gang-specific laws.84 The California STEP Act has raised many
constitutional questions involving freedom of association, vagueness, and
overreaching, but has withstood the scrutiny of California’s appellate court.
Gang Civil Injunctions
Gangs are often cited as major contributors to various types of crime, including
violent crime. One response that is being taken by cities and jurisdictions across the
country has been to use civil injunctions or nuisance ordinances to curtail the
activities of gang members. Los Angeles, a city with one of the worst gang problems
in the country, pioneered this response in 1987 in neighborhoods around the city
particularly hard-hit by gang violence and crime.
Ibid., pp. 265-288.
“Selected 1988 California Legislation,” Pacific Law Journal, Vol. 20 No. 2, 1998. (Cal.
Penal Code §§ 186.20-186.33.)
Some law enforcement sources think that these provisions may be responsible for the
recent trend among gang members of trying to conceal their membership status.
Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota,
Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Rhode Island, and South Dakota have enacted
Civil injunctions are legal actions that prohibit specifically named individuals
from engaging in particular activities within a specified area. A civil gang injunction
(CGI) can restrict or prohibit both legal and illegal gang activities.85 For example,
a CGI could be used to ban a gang from using public parks or wearing certain articles
of clothing or publicly associating with known gang members. CGIs could also be
used to make it a violation of the injunction to possess graffiti tools (spray paint) or
to carry a pager or cell phone because these items could be used for illegal activities.
CGIs have been applied to specifically named gang members who have been
prohibited from engaging in certain activities within a specified area, in an attempt
to create a “safety zone” within a high-crime neighborhood. If permitted by courts,
CGIs have also included curfews, although generally these types of restrictions are
typically only imposed on juvenile gang members named in an injunction. Violations
of a CGI generally carry a fine or incarceration that varies depending on whether the
case is brought in civil or criminal court. Typically, CGIs go into effect as soon the
named gang members are served with a copy of the injunction order.86
Since Los Angeles first issued an injunction against a gang in 1987, the use of
this type of local ordinance has spread throughout southern California communities
and into other states. The rationale for CGIs is based on the finding that much of
gang-related crime is perpetuated by a small proportion of gang members who are
repeat offenders that can be identified and targeted. Proponents of CGIs report that
a drop in crime in the target areas after a CGI is imposed provides communities some
“gang-free” time to organize and develop constructive ways of limiting a gang’s
effect on their community. If a CGI worked as intended, communities that impose
such measures would expect gang-related crime rates to drop, and this experience has
been reported by communities employing CGIs, at least in the short-run. However,
CGI critics argue that the use of injunctions infringes on the rights of targeted gang
members, violating their constitutional right to freely associate and assemble
peacefully. Several of the CGIs have been litigated; however, generally the courts
have upheld their use.
A recent study of the use of CGIs in five neighborhoods in San Bernardino, CA,
provides evidence supporting the use of CGIs as a strategic method of gang
suppression.87 The study found that CGIs were “relatively flexible tools” for fighting
gang violence because they could be customized to address the particular needs of
a community.88 The study found that CGIs may also have an important psychological
Jeffrey Grogger, “The Effects of Civil Gang Injunctions on Reported Violent Crime:
Evidence from Los Angeles,” Journal of Law and Economics, vol. XLV, April 2002, pp. 6990.
Ibid., p. 86.
Cheryl L. Maxson, Karen M. Hennigan, David C. Sloane, “‘It’s Getting Crazy Out There’:
Can A Civil Gang Injunction Change A Community?,” Journal of Criminology and Public
Policy, August 2005, vol. 4, no. 3., pp. 577-606.
Ibid., p. 579.
effect on gang members deterring them from criminal activities simply because of
their concern about added police scrutiny resulting from a CGI.89
Surveys of residents in the CGI-covered communities found that the injunctions
had an immediate impact on the visibility of gang members, and that the CGI, in turn,
actually lowered the fear of gang members among residents.90 Over time, the study
found that the CGIs did have a positive effect on residents’ perception of the gang
threat even if the effect was temporary. The study concluded that even temporary
reductions in gang activity and violence through CGIs have the potential to help
communities reduce persistence of gang activity.
Legislative Proposals in the 110th Congress
In the 110th Congress, several bills have been introduced to address various
aspects of the gang problem. These proposals comprise some comprehensive bills
that include both enhanced criminal penalties for violent gang crime and authorize
gang prosecution and prevention grants, while other bills would address the gang
problem with more targeted prevention or intervention efforts. The following section
briefly discusses some of the major anti-gang provisions under consideration by
Criminal Street Gang and Associated Crimes and Penalties
Several anti-gang bills have been introduced, and one bill (S. 456) has been
passed by the Senate, that would amend Title 18 of the U.S. Code to expand the
definition of a criminal street gang and specify additional penalty enhancements for
certain violent offenses committed by criminal street gang members. H.R. 880, H.R.
1582, H.R. 3156, H.R. 3547, S. 456, S. 990, and S. 2237 would specify federal gangrelated crimes and increase the penalties related to violent criminal street gang
H.R. 880 would provide mandatory minimum sentences for certain violent gangrelated crimes, and would permit the imposition of a death sentence in cases where
the violent crime resulted in the victim’s death. H.R. 1582, H.R. 1692, H.R. 3156,
H.R. 3547, H.R. 3922, S. 456, S. 990, S. 1860, and S. 2237 would provide
mandatory minimum sentences of no less than 15 years and up to life in prison in
Ibid., p. 582.
Ibid., p. 591, 596.
This section does not discuss certain issues that are beyond the scope of a discussion of
anti-gang legislation. For example, S. 456, H.R. 3547, H.R. 3922, and S. 2237 include
provisions pertaining to short-term witness protection that are discussed in CRS Report
RL33473, Judicial Security: Comparison of Legislation in the 110th Congress, by Nathan
James. H.R. 3547 also includes a provision that would authorize the Attorney General to
deny the sale, delivery, or transfer of a firearm or the issuance of such a license or permit
to a terrorist, which is discussed in detail in CRS Report RL33011, Terrorist Screening and
Brady Background Checks For Firearms, by William J. Krouse.
cases where the gang offender had three prior convictions for violent or drugtrafficking felonies, the last of which had been committed within 10 years of the
current offense. S. 990 and H.R. 1692 would make it unlawful to participate or cause
another to participate in specified violent gang criminal activities, and would provide
criminal penalties of up to 30 years. Under all of these bills, conviction for certain
violent gang-related offenses could carry penalties of up to life imprisonment.
Among other provisions, H.R. 1582, H.R. 1692, H.R. 3547, H.R. 3922, S. 456,
S. 990, and S. 2237 would also make it unlawful to knowingly recruit, employ,
solicit, induce, or otherwise cause a person to remain as a criminal street gang
member, or attempt or conspire to do so, with the intent that the person would
participate in a gang crime.
Amendments to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt
H.R. 880, H.R. 1582, H.R. 3150, H.R. 3156, H.R. 3547, S. 456, S. 990, and S.
2237 would increase the penalties for violent crimes committed in aid of
racketeering. These bills would also increase the criminal penalties for certain
violent offenses committed in the course of interstate and foreign travel or
transportation in aid of racketeering.
Transfer of Juveniles for Adult Prosecution
H.R. 880, H.R. 3156, and S. 1860 would amend current law to permit the
Attorney General (AG) to transfer juveniles for federal prosecution as adults if the
alleged violent felony occurred after the juvenile’s 16th birthday. Under these bills,
the AG’s decision to prosecute a juvenile as an adult would not be subject to judicial
review in any court. H.R. 1692 and S. 990 would require a study to determine the
costs and benefits of expanding federal authority to prosecute offenders under the age
Gang Task Forces and Prosecutorial Assistance
Several bills would address the gang problem with targeted approaches such as
establishing gang task forces designed to coordinate the investigation and prosecution
of gang-related crime. For example, H.R. 638, H.R. 880, H.R. 1582, H.R. 1692, H.R.
3156, H.R. 3547, H.R. 3922, S. 144, S. 456, S. 990, S. 1296, S. 1860, and S. 2237
would designate High-Intensity Interstate Gang Activity Areas (HIIGAAs) where
teams of federal, state, and local law enforcement authorities would coordinate the
investigation and prosecution of criminal street gangs. Federal assistance would be
provided by various federal agencies, and all necessary funding for the operation of
the HIIGAAs would be federally authorized. In addition, these bills would authorize
the AG to hire 94 additional Assistant U.S. Attorneys for assignment to the HIIGAAs
and would authorize appropriations to fund the HIGAAs. H.R. 638 would authorize
appropriations for grants to assist state and local prosecutors to fund technology,
equipment, and training for prosecutors and law enforcement to help them identify
and prosecute gang members and violent offenders, among other purposes, and it
would authorize appropriations for the hiring 94 additional prosecutors to fight
violent gang crime through the HIIGAAs.
Similarly, H.R. 1069 and S. 144 would establish comprehensive gang
prevention and relief areas, as well as task forces to coordinate federal assistance to
provide a comprehensive response to gang problems by focusing on early childhood
intervention programs, at-risk youth intervention, literacy, employment, community
policing, and comprehensive community anti-gang programs. In addition, the task
forces would prioritize the federal funding needs of the areas under a number of
federal programs. Among other provisions, H.R. 2466 includes a provision which
would authorize the establishment of multi-jurisdictional anti-gang task forces. H.R.
3152 would also authorize multi-jurisdictional anti-gang task forces.
In addition, some bills would establish grant programs designed to assist state
and local prosecutors in combating violent crime. H.R. 880, H.R. 1582, H.R. 3156,
H.R. 3568, H.R. 3922, S. 1860, and S. 2237 would provide grants to prosecutors and
law enforcement to combat violent crime, generally, and to fund technology,
equipment, and training in order to increase the accurate identification of gang
members and maintain databases of this information to facilitate coordination among
law enforcement and prosecutors.
H.R. 3150, H.R. 3474, H.R. 3922, and S. 2237 would expand the FBI’s Safe
Streets Program to establish a National Gang Activity Database for use in supporting
criminal street gang enforcement teams. The bill would require the AG to establish
a DOJ-administered database designed to collect and disseminate gang information
to law enforcement agencies at all levels of government, as well as provide aggregate
statistical information on gangs, subject to appropriate controls. H.R. 3384 would
authorize additional appropriations for the PSN program to improve the enforcement
of criminal laws against violent gangs.
H.R. 367 would require the Attorney General (AG) to develop and report to
Congress on a national strategy to eliminate the illegal operations of the top three
international drug gangs whose illegal activities include drug-related offenses with
any international terrorist organization or state. S. 456, H.R. 1582, and H.R. 3922
would authorize appropriations to provide the FBI with more resources for the
investigation and prosecution of violent criminal street gangs.
Gang Prevention Grants
H.R. 1070 would fund gang prevention programs from the proceeds of the sale
of certain specially issued postage stamps. H.R. 1184 would permit the Secretary of
Education to make grants to state educational agencies to award sub-grants to
alternative schools or programs serving at-risk youth that agree to develop and
implement a 100-hour community service requirement for students per school year.
In addition, the bill would also require that students receive training and attend
conflict resolution classes as a prerequisite to performing community service. H.R.
3168 would establish a grant program designed to help communities provide training,
mentoring, and education programs designed to deter and prevent gang and youth
violence by helping high-risk young adults become employable.
H.R. 1582, H.R. 3150, H.R. 3384, H.R. 3922, S. 456, and S. 2237 would expand
the Project Safe Neighborhoods program, an initiative designed to reduce gun
violence, to require each U.S. Attorney to identify, investigate, and prosecute
significant criminal street gangs operating within their district. In addition, U.S.
Attorneys would be required to coordinate these activities among federal, state, and
local law enforcement agencies. The bills would authorize the AG to hire additional
staff for carrying out the program.
H.R. 3846 would establish a series of new grants and would provide funding for
coordinating entities charged with overseeing the implementation of the grants and
creating an infrastructure between local units of government, state and local law
enforcement agencies, and the federal government. Under H.R. 3846, evidencebased measures of local and tribal juvenile delinquency and criminal street gang
activity prevention and intervention efforts would be used to identify promising
prevention and intervention programs.
Other prevention initiatives would be supported by grant programs that would
permit the development of a wide range of community-based programs for
prevention and intervention alternatives for high-risk youth. H.R. 1582, H.R. 1692,
H.R. 3922, and S. 456, S. 990, and S. 2237 would authorize grants for community
programs designed to prevent young people from joining gangs. Generally, the grants
could be used for a variety of gang prevention activities, including community and
school-based projects designed to eliminate gang related crime through employment
of security personnel; physical improvements designed to enhance security; measures
designed to reduce gang activity in and around public and low-income housing;
mentoring, counseling, and other activities to improve educational attainment and
employability; as well as intervention initiatives designed to enhance reintegration
strategies for offender reentry. Among other provisions, H.R. 1806 would similarly
authorize school and community based gang prevention grants.
Selected Issues Raised by Legislative Proposals
Most of the comprehensive anti-gang bills introduced in the 110th Congress
focus on making changes to federal criminal law that would provide longer prison
sentences for gang members convicted of certain violent felonies. These provisions
would amend the current law definition of what constitutes a “criminal street gang”
by lowering the number of affiliated persons required to trigger additional criminal
penalties for serious violent offenses. Some of the bills address the gang problem
through other indirect punitive measures, such as increasing the penalties for
specified violent crimes, including the use of mandatory minimum sentences.
Similarly, a few of the bills would permit the AG to determine whether a juvenile
offender should be transferred for prosecution as an adult.
Proponents of these gang-related sentencing enhancements argue that these
enhanced federal penalties are needed to address the rising gang crime in many
communities. They argue that longer sentences could deter violent gang-related
crime. In addition, the threat of a longer time in prison could encourage greater
cooperation of gang members with prosecutors, which could lead to the
identification, arrest, and prosecution of other gang members in exchange for a
shorter sentence. Proponents of the anti-gang legislation argue that such measures
are supported by law enforcement officials who contend that they need these tougher
sentences to stop gang violence.92 Similarly, proponents of mandatory minimum
sentences argue that this type of sentencing offers greater incentives for criminals to
cooperate with law enforcement, providing evidence in exchange for prosecution for
a different or lesser charge that does not carry a mandatory minimum or carries a
lesser sentence. Proponents of new additional federal criminal penalties for gang
crimes argue that tougher penalties and federal mandatory minimum sentences for
gang crimes are an essential deterrent to gang crime, particularly violent crimes.
Critics of mandatory minimum sentences argue on several levels against these
proposals. On the broadest level, there are critics opposed to the further
federalization of laws that have traditionally been under the sole jurisdiction of states
and localities. They cite the growing number of new federal crimes, recently
estimated at almost 4,000 crimes,93 and that a federal approach is less desirable and
unnecessary when there are already adequate federal, state, and local laws to address
gang-related crime. It is also argued that, not only are federal resources strained as
they cope with investigating and prosecuting national threats, but it is the state and
local law enforcement officers that have the necessary experience and local
intelligence sources to investigate and prosecute gang crimes which may vary greatly
by state, region, or locality. Opponents of mandatory minimum sentences for gangrelated crime also point to the greater expense of imprisonment versus the costs of
prevention and rehabilitation efforts. Moreover, it has also been argued that in
certain situations, many individuals will break the law nothwithstanding severe
criminal penalties,94 questioning the crime deterrence effect of harsher penalties.
The issue of prosecuting juveniles as adults is a highly contentious issue
discussed voluminously in the literature on juvenile delinquency, and is beyond the
scope of this report.95 However, provisions such as the one proposed in H.R. 880 that
would permit federal prosecution of juveniles who commit gang-related crimes after
their 16th birthday could have significant implications. For example, under
provisions of this bill, juveniles prosecuted and convicted as adults for serious gangrelated violent offenses could be subject to mandatory minimum sentences. Under
provisions such as the enhanced criminal penalties for gang-related crimes found in
H.R. 880, juvenile gang members transferred for federal prosecution as adults could
be eligible to receive a sentence of death for certain violent crimes. Opponents of
prosecuting juveniles as adults point to research that shows juveniles who are tried
as adults and imprisoned in adult facilities have higher recidivism rates and higher
Supported by the Fraternal Order of Police, the National Sheriffs’ Association, and the
National Association of Police Officers, statement by Rep. John Gingery, Congressional
Record, May 11, 2005, p. H3120.
Paul Rosenzweig, “The Gang Act Needs Modification,” Heritage Foundation, WebMemo,
May 3, 2004, available at [http://www.heritage.org/Research/Crime/wm494.cfm], accessed
on October 2, 2007.
Dan M. Kahan, Yale Law School, John M. Olin Center for Studies in Law, Economics,
and Public Policy Working Paper Series, The Logic of Reciprocity: Trust, Collective Action,
and Law, Paper 281, 2002, p. 23.
For more information on juvenile justice, see CRS Report RL33947, Juvenile Justice:
Legislative History and Current Legislative Issues, by Blas Nuñez-Neto.
rearrest rates compared to those of juveniles sentenced in juvenile court. Others
argue that these measures could disproportionately affect racial and ethnic minority
juveniles. In addition, they point to data from the FBI Uniform Crime Reports and
the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) reports (discussed above — Crime
Statistics section) that indicate that juvenile gang crime has been declining.
Most of the comprehensive bills would amend the federal organized crime and
racketeering statutes (RICO) to include provisions to make racketeering a gang
predicate offense and increase penalties the penalties for such crimes. Proponents of
such federal RICO amendments argue that these amendments are necessary to
prosecute cases where drug trafficking activity has been conducted by gangs onto
federal land and Indian reservations to avoid detection and state prosecution.
Proponents argue that additional federal gang-specific RICO laws, as provided by
some of these bills, would provide an important addition to the federal arsenal for
investigating and prosecuting gang-related crime. Opponents argue that the existing
federal RICO laws are sufficiently broad to provide for successful prosecution of
gang-related crime. RICO prosecutions can present a number of obstacles to
prosecuting gang violence and murder using these statutes. For example, one
significant obstacle in a gang-related RICO prosecution can be the statutes
requirement that a gang being prosecuted must be shown to have a defined structure
and hierarchical organization, and that the crimes were committed, or that there was
a conspiracy to commit crimes in furtherance of the gang.96 Despite these and other
evidentiary obstacles under existing federal RICO statues, there have been a number
of successful RICO prosecutions for gang-related crimes.97
A more general criticism of many anti-gang legislation that has been introduced
in previous Congresses has been that many of the bills were not sufficiently focused
on gang prevention assistance and that there was a lack of innovation or expansion
of prevention strategies. Similarly, some have criticized the lack of focus on
intervention efforts designed to help keep ex-offender gang members from falling
back into the gang life after imprisonment.
Supporters of gang prevention and intervention programs have long argued that
these types programs have been subjected to funding cuts in recent years despite
research indicating that gang prevention can be an important and effective way of
stopping gang growth. Moreover, there are few specifically targeted OJP or OJJDP
anti-gang prevention programs and no gang-specific intervention programs. Most of
the remaining OJP and OJJDP programs are broad grant programs with numerous
programmatic purposes among which anti-gang initiatives are one among many.
Opponents of prevention programs raise concerns about the costs of such programs
and their effectiveness. They argue that rigorous evaluations are needed to
BNA Criminal Law Reporter, Murdering Members of Rival Street Gang is Not Economic
Activity for RICO Purposes, September 22, 2204, Vol. 75, No. 23.
For a recent example of successful prosecution and conviction under existing federal
RICO statutes see, “3 MS-13 Leaders Convicted of Killings,” by Ruben Castaneda,
Washington Post, Saturday, April 28, 2007, p. B02, available at
.html], accessed on May 18, 2007.
substantiate the cost and the outcomes of initiatives. Critics also argue that grant
programs may not sufficiently reduce the gang problems facing communities across
the nation. Given that, as some observers conclude, the root causes of gang
formation and gang violence stem from poverty, a lack of employment opportunities,
and alienation from the larger society, much more than grant programs may be
needed to fully address the country’s gang problem.
Selected Options For Congress
The proliferation of youth gang problems has heightened interest in what can
be done about gangs. Gang research indicates that youth gangs vary greatly, within
and among communities, as well as across the nation. Gang members also vary by
a number of factors including age, race or ethnicity, gender, and educational
attainment, among many others. Research also indicates that there is much about
youth gangs that authorities do not know, and may never fully understand because
of the inherent complexity of the communities that give rise to gangs. As one
researcher put it, “gangs emerge, grow, dissolve, and disappear for reasons that are
poorly understood.”98 It is also important to note that gangs are dynamic entities that
evolve over time further defying easy or static responses.
Evaluations of youth gang initiatives are complicated by the numerous levels
that must be assessed. Often anti-gang strategies must encompass broad contributing
factors such as the formation and dissolution of gangs, the diversion of youth from
gangs, delinquency, and crime prevention and/or reduction. Anti-gang strategies also
involve gang members, their parents, educators, community leaders, community
organizations, providers, law enforcement, the police, prison systems, parole and
probation officers, and judges. Once again, the lack of a commonly accepted
definition of “youth gang” perhaps most fundamentally hampers evaluation
Despite this array of obstacles, numerous evaluations of federal, state, and local
anti-gang initiatives have been conducted and model programs have been identified
by gang researchers as promising responses to the gang problem. Careful
consideration of the outcomes of anti-gang program evaluations could also contribute
to the development of federal programs and policies. The following are a small
sample of the numerous anti-gang options that could be implemented or expanded
at the federal level to address the problem of youth gangs in the United States.
Congress could consider legislation to expand the G.R.E.A.T.
program and require that it be provided (1) in all schools for all
grades; or (2) in high-risk schools, in every grade; or (3) in all highrisk schools in each grade of middle school and high school.
Howell, James C., Youth Gang Programs and Strategies, National Youth Gang Center
Institute for Intergovernmental Research, August 2000, p. 1.
Congress could consider legislation to increase funding for grants to
help fund after-school programs at schools with students at high-risk
for gang participation. Research indicates that a disproportionate
amount of juvenile crime occurs between 3-6 PM.
Gang Data Improvements
Congress could consider legislation that would require the expansion
of the National Youth Gang Survey to provide a larger sample of law
enforcement agencies so that more data on state and regional gang
activity could be available for policy development on gangs.
Congress could consider legislation that would require greater
standardization of crime statistics reporting at all levels of
government with an emphasis on reporting gang-related crime. This
could result in consistent crime statistics reporting and provide better
informed policy development and strategically targeted anti-gang
Congress could consider enacting an anti-gang task force required
to work with all interested parties (researchers, law enforcement,
judiciary, policy makers) to reach a consensus on the definition of
the term “youth gang” in order to assure a better measurement and
response to the gang problem.
Congress could consider enacting a comprehensive, communitywide anti-gang program that would include prevention, intervention,
and suppression elements, similar to the on developed by Spergel,
et al,99 for OJJDP as a model program that would include five core
strategies: (1) community mobilization; (2) provision of academic,
economic, and social opportunities; (3) social intervention; (4) gang
suppression; and (5) organizational change and development.100
Congress could consider enacting legislation to fund a program
designed to target older gang members (age 17-24), designed to
provide services to individuals rather than to the gangs as groups
through two coordinated strategies: (1) control of violent or
potentially violent youth gang offenders through increased
supervision and suppression by probation and police officers, and (2)
the provision of a wide range of social services and opportunities
Spergel, I.A., Chance, R., Ehrensaft, K., Regulus, T., Kane, C., Laseter, R., Alexander,
A., and Oh, S., Gang Suppression and Intervention: Community Models, U.S. Department
of Justice Office of Justice Programs, OJJDP, 1994. (Also known as the NYGC
Comprehensive Gang Model.)
Howell, James C., Youth Gang Programs and Strategies, U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Justice Programs, OJJDP, August 2000, pp. 34-35.
that would encourage and provide support to ex-offenders during
their transition to legitimate behavior through education,
employment, job training, family support, and brief periods of
Congress could consider enacting legislation to support the
development of programs similar to the Comprehensive Strategy for
Serious, Violent, and Chronic Juvenile Offenders, an OJJDP project
first implemented in Rochester, NY, which provides for strategic
community planning and program development targeting serious
violent and chronic juvenile offenders through a framework of
prevention, early intervention, and graduated sanctions.
Congress could consider enacting legislation to support anti-gang
programs that would consist of multi-agency initiatives, like the
Boston Gun Project, for other cities. The Boston Gun Project is a
model suppression program that targeted youth and adult gang
members who are repeat offenders in high-crime areas. The
community is involved along with the police and probation officers
to communicate and enforce a “zero tolerance approach” to gang
Congress could consider legislation to enact a grant program to
assist communities with implementing anti-gang-related city
ordinances and civil injunctions. As the experience of localities in
California have shown, this type of strategy alone could not solve a
community’s gang problem, but coupled with some other strategies,
it could provide communities with a pause in gang crime that is long
enough to put in place more long-term anti-gang programs or
initiatives designed to stop gang criminal activity.
Congress could introduce legislation to provide for foreign policy
initiatives to assist Latin American countries in addressing their
serious and mounting gang problems like those of El Salvador and
No single program or initiative will work in every community facing a gang
problem. Thus, program evaluations and other outcome measures would help to
inform the development and evolution of programs and initiatives. Programmatic
flexibility permitting adaptive changes to suit local needs also would be an important
element of future federal efforts to address the gang problem at a national level.
The gang problem in the United States is complex and requires multiple
strategies to fully address the problem. The history of gang problems indicates that
total elimination of gangs or the social problems that foster their formation and
development may always persist as a national concern. The range of gang problems,
which span juvenile delinquency to drug trafficking and the serious violent offenses,
indicates the complexity of addressing the problem and the need for multiple
strategies targeted at different populations. Efforts to address the problem could be
significantly improved by greater attention to data collection efforts on gang
prevalence, characteristics, and criminal activities, as well as careful program
evaluation measures to ensure that efforts to address the problem are functioning at
Law enforcement approaches at all levels of government could benefit from
more coordinated efforts to assure that resources are being used in the most effective
manner. Information and intelligence sharing between law enforcement at all levels
of government could also enhance the development and execution of anti-gang
strategies and could foster greater cooperation to address the gang problem.
Gang researchers have long advocated that a balance of strategies in the areas
of prevention, intervention, and suppression may begin to effectively address the
gang problem. Prevention strategies targeted on keeping juveniles from ever joining
gangs, such as the G.R.E.A.T. program or Boys and Girls Clubs, offer some possible
prevention approaches. Intervention strategies, such as training and employment
assistance, to provide alternatives to the gang life for active members, is also
suggested as a mechanism for providing economic alternatives to criminal gang
activity. Imprisonment and other punitive measures such as forfeiture and fines are
appropriate for serious violent gang perpetrators; however, such measures alone have
not proven to be sufficient to stem the growth of gangs.