Myths About Youth Gangs

The following is adapted from James C. Howell's "Menacing or Mimicking? Realities of Youth Gangs."[1] Points of view or opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of NIJ or its parent agencies.

Myth:Gangs Have Formal Organization
Gangs have become much like structured corporations that form alliances in their respective regions and expand across the United States.
Reality:Few youth gangs have evolved into organized adult criminal organizations; gangs are often loosely structured, with transient leadership and membership, easily transcended codes of loyalty, and informal rather than formal roles for the members.
Myth:Gangs Are Connected To One Another
Small local gangs are spawned by big-city gangs.
Reality:Local gangs often mimic or imitate mainstream depictions of gangs and big-city gang culture, forming what have come to be called hybrid gangs.
Myth:Gangs Migrate
Youth gangs migrate across the country to establish satellite sets, opening drug trafficking operations as they come.
Reality:Few gangs have the capacity to expand into other regions. Gang migration that does occur appears to coincide with the U.S. population shift from highly populated to less populated areas.
Myth:Gangs, Drugs and Violence
Gang members are violent, gun-toting moneymakers who eliminate local drug dealers as they move across the country.
Reality:Gang members' use of and procurement of drugs brings the gang into the drug market mix at the street sale level, but youth gangs rarely manage or control drug trafficking operations. Violence is generally the result of intergang rivalries, turf protection and expansion, and interpersonal disputes rather than drug deals.
Myth:All Gangs Are Alike
Gangs attempt to create the impression that they are at least as dangerous as the next gang.
Reality:As the first gang research in 1927 observed, no two gangs are just alike. Law enforcement describes the typical gang as loose-knit (45 percent) with no formal structure (47 percent). Structured gangs in large cities with longstanding gang problems are more dangerous and thus differ from other gangs in less populated areas.
Myth:All Gang Members Are Black Males
Youth gang members are composed of inner-city black males.
Reality:Racial, ethnic and gender composition varies by locality; of school-aged adolescents in gangs, 25 percent are white, 31 percent are African-American, 25 percent are Hispanic, and 20 percent are of another racial or ethnic background. In younger adolescent gangs, females account for 25 to 50 percent of the members in various locations.
Myth:Gangs Overwhelm Youths
Gangs overpower youths with initiation rituals.
Reality:Most gangs do require some ceremonial type of induction, but rarely call on inductees to victimize innocent members of the public.
Myth:Youths Are Pressured by Peers
Youths are peer-pressured into gang joining.
Reality:Gangs are often at the center of appealing social activity, such as parties, but social interaction and a need for protection are the main self-reported reasons youths join gangs. Pressure to join may come from the young person's family or normal peer influences or gang members who warn that the youth will not be protected if they do not join.
Myth:Many Adolescents Are Recruited by Adults to Join Gangs
Adult gang members recruit youths to join gangs, and to act as runners in drug trades.
Reality:Prison gangs actively recruit new members using threats, coercion, force and protection offers, but these tactics are rarely seen in street-based youth gangs. In one recorded instance, older gang members refused to allow juveniles to become involved in drug trades because of the dangers inherent in them.
Myth:Once Kids Join a Gang They're Pretty Much Lost for Good
Involvement with a gang is a permanent condition.
Reality:More than half of young gang members stay in the gang for less than one year, and in many instances members leave the gang without serious consequences.
Myth:Gangs Are Here for Good
Once a gang emerges in a community, it becomes a permanent fixture.
Reality:Gang problems fluctuate in cities with populations fewer than 50,000, and only 10 percent of localities with populations fewer than 25,000 report persistent gang problems. The probability of permanent gang problems is higher in large cities.
Myth:Gangs Dominate Girls
Male gang members perpetrate group sex (or sexual gangbanging) as an initiation ritual for female members.
Reality:Self-reported accounts given by female gang members have refuted this myth, which appears to be a fantasy male gang members verbalize.


[1] Howell, .J.C., "Menacing or Mimicking? Realities of Youth Gangs" (pdf, 12 pages), Juvenile and Family Court Journal 58 (2) (Spring): 2007. Research on which Howell's article is based was conducted under grant award 95-JD-MU-K001, awarded to the National Youth Gang Center (now the National Gang Center) from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Date Created: November 1, 2011