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The youth gang problem in the United States has become an important public policy issue in recent years, largely because of the growth of youth gang violence and the apparent proliferation of youth gangs throughout the United States. In order to measure the extent of the problem, the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention's 1996 National Youth Gang Survey was conducted by the National Youth Gang Center. This survey was the largest of its type, and the results are fully representative of the Nation as a whole. Almost 5,000 law enforcement agencies were surveyed, and more than 80 percent of the survey recipients responded. Survey recipients were asked about youth gangs in their jurisdictions in 1996, including questions about the number of gangs and gang members, gang member demographics, gang drug distribution, gang migration, and the level of crime in which gang members were involved. A gang was defined as "a group of youths or young adults in (the respondent's) jurisdiction that (the respondent) or other responsible persons in (the respondent's) agency or community are willing to identify or classify as a 'gang.'"

The 1996 National Youth Gang Survey was sent to two groups: a statistically representative sample of 3,024 law enforcement agencies and a sample of 1,956 law enforcement agencies that were surveyed in the 1995 National Youth Gang Survey, but not selected for the 1996 representative sample. Information and analyses included in this report were limited to the survey responses for the statistically representative sample, as the data were more comprehensive and allowed for a more complete nationwide perspective.

The statistically representative sample was composed of jurisdictions in four area types: all large cities with populations greater than 25,000; a random sample of small cities with populations between 2,500 and 25,000; all suburban counties; and a random sample of rural counties. Surveys were sent to the appropriate local law enforcement agency within each jurisdiction included in the sample.

Based on the results of the survey, it was estimated that there were 4,824 jurisdictions throughout the country with active youth gangs in 1996. Furthermore, it was projected that 30,818 gangs and 846,428 gang members were active in these jurisdictions. Fifty-three percent of respondents in the United States had active gangs in 1996. More specifically, gang activity was reported in 74 percent of large cities, 57 percent of suburban counties, 34 percent of small cities, and 25 percent of rural counties.

When the number of gang members reported in each jurisdiction was accounted for, the number of gang members nationwide was evenly split between juveniles and adults. The vast majority of gang members (71 percent) were reported to be from 15 to 24 years old. Adult gang members were most prevalent in suburban counties (58 percent) and large cities (51 percent).

Males were reported to be substantially more involved in gang activity than their female counterparts. When the number of gang members reported in each jurisdiction was controlled for, females constituted only 10 percent of gang members throughout the country. This contrasts with several recent self-report studies in which females represented approximately one-fourth to one-third of all gang members in urban adolescent samples.

Results of the survey also revealed that the racial/ethnic composition of gangs has changed compared with earlier national surveys and research involving smaller samples. When the number of gang members reported in each jurisdiction was controlled for, Caucasians accounted for 14 percent of all gang members nationwide. In addition, the proportion of Caucasian gang members was more than twice the national average in rural counties (32 percent) and small cities (31 percent). However, Hispanic and African-American gang members continued to constitute the majority of gang members, especially in large cities and suburban counties. Respondents estimated that 47 percent of the gangs in their jurisdictions were multiethnic/multiracial when the results were weighted for the number of gangs reported in each jurisdiction.

Most respondents (84 percent) indicated that they had experienced some migration of gang members into their jurisdictions. After the number of gang members reported in each jurisdiction was controlled for, it was estimated that 21 percent of all gang members in jurisdictions that experienced some migration had migrated to the jurisdiction in which they were residing. The average proportion of gang migrants reported by survey respondents decreased as the population of jurisdictions increased.

Youth gang members were estimated to have been involved in 2,364 homicides in large cities and 561 homicides in suburban counties. Regarding other crimes, respondents indicated that youth gang members were more involved in larceny/theft, followed fairly closely (in the order of degree of involvement) by aggravated assault, burglary, and motor vehicle theft. Youth gang members were not extensively involved in robbery—almost half of the respondents reported low degrees of involvement.

On average, respondents estimated that 43 percent of the drug sales in their jurisdictions involved gang members. However, a substantial number of respondents (47 percent) indicated that gang members controlled or managed less than one-quarter of all drug distribution in their jurisdictions. In jurisdictions that reported a high level of gang control of drug sales and distribution, African-Americans constituted the largest average proportion of gang members. Additionally, the largest average proportion of adult gang members was reported in jurisdictions that reported a high level of gang control of drug distribution.

The results of this survey indicate that the youth gang problem in this country is substantial and affects communities of all sizes. Almost three-fourths of the cities surveyed with populations greater than 25,000 reported youth gangs in 1996. Furthermore, a majority of suburban counties had gangs, as did a significant percentage of small cities and rural counties. Caucasians were found to be more involved in gang activity than previous studies and surveys had indicated, and their predominance in rural counties and small cities was especially high. Gang members were involved in a significant amount of crime, but the degree of involvement and type of crime varied by area type, region, and population. Examination of these data by the National Youth Gang Center will continue, and subsequent surveys will help to gather more information about gangs and gang members.


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1996 National Youth Gang Survey   July 1999