- "The Teen Violent Death rate was 69 per 100,000 teens in 1993 and increased 10 percent between 1985 and 1993." (Kids Count Data Book, 14).
- "During 1994, about one-fifth (19.4 percent) of everyone arrested for a violent crime was under age 18." (Kids Count Data Book, 15).
- "The Juvenile Violent Crime Arrest Rate increased [66 percent] from 305 per 100,000 in 1985 to 506 per 100,000 in 1993." (Kids Count Data Book, 15).
The list goes on and on. These startling statistics are a sad reminder of the violence plaguing our country today. Unfortunately, a growing number of teens are becoming involved in it. Gang violence is quickly becoming a greater threat to the well-being of our society and is predicted to "spiral out of control" by the year 2000. (Surge Predicted in Juvenile Crime, Price, B3). Originally thought of as just an "inner-city problem," gang violence is spreading to the smallest of America's cities. The gang activity that used to consist merely of vandalism, petty theft, and battles over turf in the 1950's, have now become those of burglary, extortion, and drug dealing. One study shows that "during 1992 alone Los Angeles County, California, for example, saw more than 800 gang-related homicides, and over 12,000 injuries caused by gang activities" and that "in 1987 such killings in Los Angeles County totaled 387 and had risen to 420 in 1988." (Criminology Today, Schmalleger, 249). Researchers believe that gang members aren't significantly affected by the justice system and that most of the time they are set free, that is, if they ever get caught at all. Studies show that "80 percent of the most serious and frequent offenders escape detection and arrest." and that barely one person goes to prison for every 100 crimes committed." (Price, B3). In many experts' opinions, "there is simply not enough of a deterrent [for crime] for youthful offenders." (A Sad Fact of Life, Sharp, 67).
Gang activity that used to be only prominent in large cities such as Los Angeles or Chicago, has spread over to smaller areas. For example, one small town, Lee, Massachusetts, which has a population of 6,500 and is served by an 11-member police force, has noted an increase in gang activity. The reason for this is that bigger cities, such as Springfield, which has a population of 160,000 and a 527-member police force, "are placing a lot of pressure on gangs operating in their cities. The gangs have been forced to seek new territory and smaller communities seem likely places to go." (Sharp, 65). An article in the Daily Times of the small city of Salisbury, Maryland highlights the problem of "gangs uprooting themselves and expanding their activities." (Sharp, 65). It said that "gang activity was on the increase in Maryland, in large part due to enforcement actions in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles" and that "organized gangs in out-of-state locations were seeking to expand their activities in the state because it was basically 'virgin territory'." (Sharp, 65). Chicago, a major gang center in the United States, is the home of the notorious Gangster Disciples, a gang with a history dating as far back as the 1960's. Lincolnwood, a suburb that borders Chicago with a population of 11,300 people and a 34-member police force, is one of the several communities in which the Disciples operate from since the gang "has extended its territory over much of the city's south side and beyond." (Sharp, 65). This newly seen gang violence has, in a sense, spilled over from the larger cities. Smaller communities, like these, are becoming way stations for gang activity.
Some experts have predicted that the coming storm of gang violence "will be more brutal than anything Americans have ever confronted." (Price, B3). According to a report released by the Council on Crime in America, "America is a ticking violent time bomb" and "there is little time remaining to prepare for the blast." (Price, B3). This report attributes the growth in juvenile crime to the increase of adolescent males in coming years. It states that "the number of boys ages 14 to 17 will rise by 500,000 - to about 8 million - by the year 2000" and that there "will be a 23 percent increase in this population by 2005." (Price, B3). According to the report, "The State of Violent Crime in America," "for Blacks and Hispanics in that age group, the numbers will increase by 28 percent and 50 percent, respectively." (Price, B3). The reason for this is that many youths in the United States are living in poverty and are "in places where institutions of civil society - families, schools, churches, voluntary associations - are proving too weak to keep them on the straight and narrow." (Price, B3). The report predicts that these future young men will be "more crime prone than their predecessors: They will commit more serious crimes and will commit more crimes against strangers." (Price, B3). According to a large-scale study done on boys in Philadelphia and other cities, "each generation of crime-prone boys is several times more dangerous than the one before it" and that "crime-prone boys born in 1958 who resided in Philadelphia between their 10th and 18th birthdays did about three times as much crime as their older cousins" born in 1945. (Price, B3). The study also says that about 60 percent of the most serious offenders in the older group were never even known to the police. It states that it is "probable that an even larger fraction of the serious offenders in the younger group had no official record." (Price, B3). Researchers believe that it is "all too likely that most of the worst future juvenile offenders will escape detection, arrest and punishment." (Price, B3).
A major problem is that offenders are no longer afraid of the justice system. "They do not have a lot of respect for state laws," says one State of Connecticut probation officer. "They know that state-mandated prison sentences are short." (Sharp, 68). In a recent poll, "89% of the respondents said that juvenile offender laws have to be toughened as one step toward curbing gang problems." (Sharp, 67). They also believe that the current enforcement of juvenile crime is "too lenient" and that they "are frustrated by the courts' treatment of youthful offenders." (Sharp, 67). Juvenile gang members are wise to the fact that they are underage and can not be held as an adult. One officer, Assistant Chief Ron Ward, recalls a story in which "two gang members were caught in a stolen car but only the driver was arrested. The passenger asked the arresting officer if he would tell the driver to call him later that afternoon after he was released." (Sharp, 67). The passenger knew that his friend was going to be released later on that day. In one poll, 57% of law enforcement officials reported that it is "common in their jurisdictions for officers to apprehend gang members only to find them back on the streets within a matter of hours." (Sharp, 67). One report calls it "revolving door justice" since "about a third of those arrested for violent crimes, such as murder, rape, robbery and assault, are on probation, parole or pretrial release." (Price, B3). The offenders come in and then leave out just as quickly. "They know that they are not going to spend much time being held, and nothing is going to happen to them," says Ward. "Until this changes, the justice system is doomed to failure." (Sharp, 67).
There is no debate that gangs are a problem within our society today. They are greatly contributing to the immoral violence that is plaguing our nation. We have to realize that the problem is no longer exclusive to the slums of the inner cities. Gangs have moved into our communities and suburbs as well, right in our own backyard. The amount of gang violence has greatly increased within the last few years, though in many instances, it has gone undetected by the police. However, an offender that is brought in by the police is not guaranteed to be held in custody. Most of the time, the accused offender is once again let loose to roam the streets. Gang violence has become a widespread problem that can no longer be ignored.
1. The Annie E. Casey Foundation. Kids Count Data Book. Baltimore: Annie E. Casey Foundation, 1996.
2. Price, Joyce. "Surge Predicted in Juvenile Crime." The Washington Post 6 January 1996: B3+.
3. Schmalleger, Frank. Criminology Today. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996.
4. Sharp, Arthur G. "A Sad Fact of Life."
Law and Order July 1996: 64-68.
This paper was prepared in 1997 for a colloquium facilitated by Stephen Wright, instructor for the Advocates for Children program, part of the College Park Scholars community at the University of Maryland, College Park.