History of Youth Gangs

Youth gangs may have first appeared in Europe (Klein, 1996) or Mexico (Redfield, 1941; Rubel, 1965). No one is sure when or why they emerged in the United States. The earliest record of their appearance in the United States may have been as early as 1783, as the American Revolution ended (Sante, 1991; Sheldon, 1898). They may have emerged spontaneously from adolescent play groups or as a collective response to urban conditions in this country (Thrasher, 1927). Some suggest they first emerged following the Mexican migration to the Southwest after the Mexican Revolution in 1813 (Redfield, 1941; Rubel, 1965). They may have grown out of difficulties Mexican youth encountered with social and cultural adjustment to the American way of life under extremely poor conditions in the Southwest (Moore, 1978; Vigil, 1988). Gangs appear to have spread in New England in the early 1800's as the Industrial Revolution gained momentum in the first large cities in the United States: New York, Boston, and Philadelphia (Finestone, 1976; Sante, 1991; Spergel, 1995).

Gangs began to flourish in Chicago and other large cities during the industrial era, when immigration and population shifts reached peak levels (Finestone, 1976). Early in American history, gangs seem to have been most visible and most violent during periods of rapid population shifts. Their evolution has been characterized by an ebb and flow pattern that "at any given time more closely resembles that of, say, influenza rather than blindness," as Miller (1992:51) has observed. The United States has seen four distinct periods of gang growth and peak activity: the late 1800's, the 1920's, the 1960's, and the 1990's (Curry and Decker, 1998). Gang proliferation, in other words, is not a constant.

In the modern era, youth gangs have been influenced by several trends. In the 1970's and 1980's, because of increased mobility and access to more lethal weapons, many gangs became more dangerous (Klein, 1995; Klein and Maxson, 1989; Miller, 1974, 1992; Spergel, 1995). Gang fights previously involving fists or brass knuckles increasingly involved guns. The growing availability of automobiles, coupled with the use of more lethal weapons, fueled the growth of drive-by shootings, a tactic that previously took the form of on-foot hit-and-run forays (Miller, 1966). Gangs of the 1980's and 1990's seem to have both more younger and more older members than before (Miller, 1992; Spergel, 1995), more members with prison records or ties to prison inmates (Hagedorn, 1988; Miller, 1992; Moore, 1990; Vigil, 1988), and more weapons of greater lethality (Block and Block, 1993; Miller, 1992; National Drug Intelligence Center, 1995). They are less concerned with territorial affiliations (Fagan, 1990; Klein, 1995), use alcohol and drugs more extensively (Decker and Van Winkle, 1996; Fagan, 1990; Thornberry, 1998), and are more involved in drug trafficking (Battin et al., 1998; Fagan, 1990; Miller, 1992; Taylor, 1989; Thornberry, 1998).

Some youth gangs appear to have been transformed into entrepreneurial organizations by the crack cocaine epidemic that began in the mid-1980's (Sanchez-Jankowski, 1991; Skolnick et al., 1988; Taylor, 1989). However, the extent to which they have become drug-trafficking organizations is unclear (Howell and Decker, in press). Some youth groups, many of which are not considered bona fide gangs, are not seriously involved in illegal activities and provide mainly social opportunities for their membership (Fagan, 1989; Vigil, 1988). Some gangs seldom use drugs and alcohol, and some have close community ties (Fagan, 1989; Sanchez-Jankowski, 1991; Vigil, 1988).

Youth Gangs: An Overview Juvenile Justice Bulletin   ·  August 1998