Street gangs have posed a significant threat to public safety in the United States for decades.
In many communities that experience high rates of crime, public safety agencies struggle to respond to gang-related crime due to strained resources. Young and vulnerable populations in these communities are particularly at risk for gang involvement when law enforcement and other resources, such as gang prevention programming, are limited.
Gangs are defined in many ways, but most definitions have similar components. A common definition of a gang is a group of three or more individuals who engage in criminal activity and identify themselves with a common name or sign.
Gang involvement brings with it a host of negative consequences that disrupt the normal course of youth development. This includes skipping school, failing to graduate, becoming a teen parent, and unemployment, among others. Although youth are generally gang members for only a year or two, the negative impact of their exposure can last well into adulthood.
While the dangers of gangs for youth are startling, students throughout the country have reported less gang activity in their schools, according to the Report on Indicators of School Crime and Safety, 2020. In 2019, 9 percent of students ages 12–18 reported a gang presence at their school during the school year. This is down from 2009, when 20 percent of students reported a gang presence.
Addressing any gang issues in the school environment requires the involvement of law enforcement, school administrators and staff, and other key sectors of the community. The OJJDP Comprehensive Gang Model highlights such a holistic approach by coordinating the roles of all agencies and organizations within a community that are responsible for addressing gang-related crime and violence.
In prisons throughout the country, gangs are responsible for a disproportionate amount of misconduct and violence. Their presence and actions challenge ongoing efforts to maintain control, order, and safety. Many U.S. prison systems have cited restrictive housing as a successful way to reduce gang violence, but it's one of the most controversial correctional practices because it places gang affiliates in restrictive housing, not always because they've earned it or needed it.
Overall, gang members, and others involved with gangs, engage in a higher level of serious and violent crime than their non-gang-involved peers. Research about gangs is often intertwined with research about gun violence and drug crime. It's clear that gangs, guns, drugs, and violence are interconnected.
In May 2020, NIJ held a virtual meeting with researchers and practitioners to ensure that NIJ’s investments in research on gangs and gang violence continue to close knowledge gaps on this topic. Participants advised NIJ on both emerging and long-standing concerns and offered recommendations for research designs and other issues related to conducting studies to address gangs and gang violence.
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