Humans are social creatures that gather into groups to attain a comfortable sense of security, provide help for each other, and enjoy the pleasant sense of companionship. However, groups that form established street gangs often damage the quality of the communities by engaging in delinquent activities, inflicting harm upon victims, and by impairing the atmosphere of the communities with fearful distrust. Although the media and the public have often perpetuated the common misconception that gangs are exclusively confined to urban neighborhoods, many youths from rural or suburban areas also choose to join dangerous gangs. As a result, many criminologists and psychologists have contemplated and debated the different factors that can cause youths from various backgrounds to join gangs. Helping to understand the several social, cultural and economic factors that encourage youths to participate in gang activities can help society more effectively minimize the number of children who choose to affiliate with gangs. The primary reasons that explain why youths join gangs are that gangs possess the ability to offer kids a sense of companionship, a perception of protection, and the opportunity to obtain financial and social success.
Many research studies indicate that the number of youths joining gangs has been steadily increasing during recent decades. Whereas in the 1970s street gangs were present in only half of the US states, now gangs are present in all 50 states. As of 2010, research studies indicate that there are about 24,500 known gangs in the United States and that there are approximately 772,500 youths in the US who are affiliated with gangs, which accounts for about 7 percent of all youths in the country. The average age for gang members is 17 to 18 years old. However, reports also demonstrate that a quarter of gang affiliates are between 15 to 17 years old, children are joining gangs at consistently younger ages, and many members are as young as 10 years old (Lohmann, 2010). Although more boys tend to affiliate with gangs than girls, the number of girls joining gangs has also been steadily rising in the recent decade. Thus, the number of established gangs and the number of young boys and girls joining gangs have been rapidly increasing in recent decades.
Gangs engage in many different types of criminal activities that are dangerous to gang members and their communities. Types of delinquent behavior frequently displayed by gangs include assaults, thefts, drug trafficking, and underground weapon exchanges. Most gangs usually possess a leader along with several high-ranking officers who also fulfill leadership roles to direct actions of certain branches of the gangs. Gang branches usually claim a turf or territory, attempt to dominate criminal activity on that territory, and typically must exercise violence to acquire and maintain authority over the area. As a result, the desire to dominate territory often leads to violence among other gangs who are rivals in the criminal industry or who are struggling to work and reside on the same territory. To conveniently identify gang affiliations, members often utilize gang signals and wear certain colors to demonstrate the particular gang that they belong to. However, wearing the wrong colors, walking onto dangerous gang territory, or attempting to sell drugs or weapons on the turf of another gang can result in intense violent struggles. Thus, the contentious rivalry for territory, market domination, or community power causes dramatic violence to frequently develop between different opposing gangs. Studies demonstrate that being in a gang dramatically increases the chances that an individual will encounter imprisonment or premature death, as gang members are 60 times more likely to die at a young age as a result of homicide than people who do not associate with gangs (Carlie, 2002). Therefore, gangs are dangerous because the members are significantly more likely to commit crimes, engage in violent behavior, and be incarcerated or murdered at a young age.
Gangs are also detrimental to the community and for innocent people living in the neighborhoods. Many innocent victims are killed by gangs despite not belonging to a rival gang or despite not affiliating with any particular gang organization, as about 50 percent of victims murdered by gangs are not affiliated with a gang member (Harness, n.d.). Many factors can motivate gang members to harm or murder other innocent people in the communities. Innocent non-gang citizens might be killed by gangs for interfering with criminal activities, having a conflict with a member of the gang, serving as a potential threat to gang operations, or wearing the wrong colors while walking on gang territory. Thus, gangs are especially dangerous because gang members are capable of murdering people who associate with other rival gangs or innocent people who are not at all affiliated with gangs.
One of the most common and misleading myths regarding gangs is that gang organizations are confined to only low-income urban neighborhoods. This is a myth, for studies indicate that gangs are present in suburban and rural communities and that many youths who live in suburban or rural neighborhoods also choose to join gangs. Since the 1990s, the gang presence in suburban communities has rapidly increased, and as of 2014, approximately 61 percent of suburban communities are experiencing the presence of gangs (Semark, n.d.). The gangs permeating through suburban neighborhoods typically consist of new gangs developing organically in the neighborhoods, or large and already established gangs migrating into the suburbs to traffic a higher volume of drugs, creating new customer bases, dominating new territory, and generating more profits (Mukasey, 2008). As a result, a steadily increasing gang presence is developing in many suburban communities and many suburban kids are being enticed to interact with or join gangs. Additionally, studies indicate that street gangs have expanded into many rural areas of the country as well, which has caused the number of rural adolescents joining gangs to also consistently rise since the 1990s. Thus, street gangs represent a detrimental problem that impairs the quality of many different types of communities, including urban, suburban and rural neighborhoods.
Another misconception often perpetuated during discussions about gangs is that the members of the gangs all derive from broken families. This argument entails that the gang members only join the criminal organizations because they were raised by single parents, absent parents, dysfunctional families or otherwise broken homes. However, this is a false claim, for many youths who reside with both parents and who are from strong families also choose to join gangs. In turn, statistics demonstrate that youths from strong households with two parents join gangs at the same rate as youths who are from broken families. Additionally, because the divorce rates in the US exceed the 50 percent mark, many American kids are from broken homes with single parents but still do not join gangs (Sanchez-Jankowski, n.d.). Thus, the high number of people who join gangs despite being from healthy families, accompanied by the abundance of children from broken families who do not join gangs, indicates that there is no correlation between family status and gang activity. As a result, the frequently repeated notion that people turn to gangs because of broken families is a misconception.
Many different factors can encourage youths to interact with gang organizations and become official gang members. Companionship is a primary reason why people in suburban, rural or urban communities join gangs. Because most humans strive to establish strong social connections and attempt to form tight friendship bonds, gangs often utilize the strong camaraderie and loyalty between gang members as a method of recruiting youths to join the organizations. In turn, youths perceive that the gangs can provide them with a sense of belonging, unconditional support, and caring assistance that are often associated with a family network or with a strong group of friends (Pacheco, 2010). Thus, the tight companionship that permeates among the gang members entices youths to join the gangs so they can also enjoy the solidarity and companionship offered by the organizations.
The identity acquired by associating with gangs as companions also lures many young people into gangs. Many people who live in communities where gangs are prevalent glorify and glamorize the gang members as being powerful, influential and successful. Because of this attractive perception of gangs being admirable, certain young people join gangs to adorn their identity with a sense of power, importance and influence (Why Young People Join Gangs, n.d.). Thus, many youths join gangs because belonging to a gang is perceived as an attractive attribute to their identities, facilities a feeling of superior power, and generates a prideful sense of importance.
The natural and human desire for companionship can also cause many people to join gangs as a result of peer pressure. Because an individual must inevitably socialize and interact with people in his or her community, associating with peers who value criminal activity and deviant behavior causes the individual to also value and appreciate delinquency and criminal behavior. (Semark, n.d.). Thus, peer pressure is a factor that consistently entices many youths to join gangs, for spending a significant amount of time with peers that participate in gang activities dramatically increases the chances that an individual will also join a gang to acquire respect from the peers and to maintain the friendships or social bonds established with the peers.
Many youths choose to interact with gangs as their companions because of the perceived excitement that accompanies the gang lifestyle. Just as some humans seek surges of excitement through sports, gangs provide a perception of excitement because of the dangerous endeavors that the organizations fulfill, the intimidating and violent behavior they display, and the illegal activities that the members frequently engage in. As a result, many research studies indicate that some youths simply join gangs because being affiliated with a dangerous and powerful gang provides them with a thrilling rush of adrenaline and excitement (Griffin, 2013). Additionally, people who inherently enjoy the thrilling excitement associated with participating in criminal activities join the gangs because the organizations facilitate and support those activities. Thus, many people join gangs because of the perception that the organizations can adorn their lives and identities with the qualities of companionship, pride, power, and excitement.
Protection is another primary reason why youths choose to join gangs. Many people who join gangs live in areas where there is already an intense gang presence, excessive crime rates, and dangerous predators that can threaten the safety of the individuals in the community. Although being in a gang provides an abundance of danger, youths are deceived into believing that the gangs can offer unconditional protection, will defend them against any threats, and will redress any grievances caused by rivals. Additionally, the presence of gangs in the area provides a nervous and suspicious atmosphere that further entices people to join gangs as a method of protecting them from dangerous threats or other gangs (Bocanegra, n.d.). Thus, many youths join gangs because it provides them with a sense of protection and safety in communities that are relatively perilous and threatening.
Many criminologists assert that youths especially seek gangs for protection in disorganized communities. Some neighborhoods feature strong and organized social structures in which the people are connected to the communities, involved with educational and professional endeavors, and perceive that the strong police presence can effectively enforce the laws and apprehend criminals. However, some areas that experience consistent criminal activities and a rampant gang presence are disorganized communities in which the people do not possess a strong attachment or involvement with the structures of the community and do not trust that the police can adequately protect them from the dangers of street crime (Listenbee, n.d.). Thus, youths who live in disorganized communities are more likely to join gangs to provide protection and defense against other violent criminals or other street gangs.
Money is a significant reason why many youths in rural or urban areas choose to join street gangs. Most gangs provide opportunities for the members to make an abundance of immediate cash, usually from selling drugs, weapons or stolen items. The ability to make money is an especially prevalent reason why youths in impoverished low-income communities join gangs. The severe economic inequality of the US has established a situation in which some areas of the country enjoy affluent wealth and plentiful resources while many other areas of the country suffer from extreme poverty and a drastic lack of resources. While youths in affluent neighborhoods typically understand that college can equip them with the knowledge and skills required to fulfill prominent jobs and achieve enormous financial success, the lack of resources and opportunities in disenfranchised communities prevents the people in the communities from being able to attend college, obtain meaningful employment, or earn reasonable salaries (Berkely). Thus, because the youths in impoverished communities perceive that they cannot obtain money through legitimate positions of society, many youths instead view street gangs as their only opportunity to earn the sufficient amounts of money required to live comfortably and achieve financial success.
Many youths in low-income communities also opt to affiliate with gangs as a method of obtaining social prestige. Most citizens desire to earn respect and establish prestigious reputations from their peers and society. However, the lack of educational and employment opportunities in disenfranchised communities prevents the people in the communities from being able to receive important positions of employment or acquire an eminent reputation through standard avenues of society. As a result, many people choose to achieve social success within their communities by joining gangs and performing delinquent acts that are appreciated by the gangs and valued by their peers (Howell, 2010). Thus, the lack of opportunities in low-income communities often causes youths to join gangs to ascend the chain of command within the organizations, earn a prestigious reputation among their peers, and achieve social success within the communities.
Street gangs impair the quality of society by requiring members to engage in detrimental criminal behavior such as theft, violence and drug dealing. Like most organizations, gangs attempt to recruit young members as a way to increase the size of the gangs and to ensure that the organization thrives into the future. However, society can help alleviate crime rates and minimize the size of gangs by addressing the many social, economic, and cultural issues that encourage youths to join gangs. The primary factors that cause youths to affiliate with gangs include the ability of gangs to offer a sense of companionship, a source of protection, a means to earn financial success and an opportunity to achieve social prestige.
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