Gangs

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps
 
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The rise in gang violence since the 1980s caused lawmakers to seek a variety of methods to curb the formation and activities of these gangs. According to statistics from the National Youth Gang Center, more than 24,500 gangs, consisting of more than 770,000 members, exist in about 3,330 cities in the United States. Congress spends as much as $20 billion per year in HEALTH CARE costs treating victims of gunshot wounds, and many of the incidents involving guns also involve street and other types of gangs.

A gang is sometimes difficult to define, especially in legal terms. Although gangs typically involve a congregation of individuals, primarily young males, certainly not all congregations or informal gatherings of young individuals constitute gangs. Definitions of gangs or street gangs vary among the laws governing them. Alabama law, for example, defines a "streetgang" as, "[A]ny combination, confederation, alliance, network, conspiracy, understanding, or similar arrangement in law or in fact, of three or more persons that, through its membership or through the agency of any member, engages in a course or pattern of criminal activity." Ala. Code § 13A-6-26 (2002).

Congress, state legislatures, and municipal governments have responded to the growing tide of gangs by considering a variety of bills addressing gang violence. Although efforts at the federal level have largely been unsuccessful, many states and municipalities have enacted laws designed to deter gang-related violence. Several of these statutes and ordinances have been fashioned as anti-loitering statutes, which often raise FIRST AMENDMENT concerns. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1999 made it more difficult for municipalities to draft gang loitering ordinances when it found that an ordinance such as this in the city of Chicago was unconstitutional. City of Chicago v. Morales, 527 U.S. 41, 119 S. Ct. 1849, 144 L. Ed. 2d 67 (1999).

Background

Activities of gangs predate the formation of the United States, though the common perception of these gangs has changed over time. The level of violence among street gangs is a relatively new phenomenon. Because different organizations and individuals define the term gang differently, accurate statistics are often difficult to compile. Many of the crimes committed by gangs are violent crimes, including HOMICIDE. Moreover, many of the gang members are juveniles or young adults.

According to the 1999 National Youth Gang Survey, 90 percent of gang members are male. Seventy-one percent of these members are between the ages of 15 and 24, and 16 percent are age 14 or under. About 79 percent of the gang members, according to this survey, are Hispanic or black, while only 14 percent are white. Because of the large discrepancy in the number of minorities, some commentators have suggested that young minority males are unfairly stereo-typed, leading to RACIAL PROFILING of groups consisting of these young minority males.

Until the late 1980s, public and law enforcement agencies perceived gangs as racially and ethnically segregated, loosely organized fighting groups. However, a 1988 study of two major Los Angeles gangs, the Crips and the Bloods, showed that these gangs had become highly organized and entrepreneurial. These gangs had begun to engage in drug trafficking and had expanded their operations to multiple cities and states. As the gangs' interest in drug trade increased, so too did the level of violence perpetrated by their members. Between 1984 and 1993, the number of homicides committed by juveniles increased by 169 percent, representing a sharp increase in the number of gang-related crimes. Gang membership also increased markedly during this time. Between 1989 and 1995, the number of students reporting a gang presence at their school increased from 15 to 28 percent.

In response to the concerns caused by gang violence, several states and cities enacted statutes and ordinances designed to address street crime. In 1988, California enacted the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act (STEP Act), Cal. Pen. Code §§ 186.20?.33 (2001). Since that time, at least 28 other states have enacted similar legislation. Cities with traditional gang strongholds, such as Chicago and Los Angeles, enacted a series of ordinances that enabled law enforcement to take a more proactive approach in fighting street gangs in those cities.

Boston, which experienced the most number of homicides in its history in 1990 due in large part to gang violence, initiated a community-based strategy designed to target at-risk youth

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before they considered joining a gang. It also developed strategies for youth intervention and enforcement of GUN CONTROL laws. Due to this initiative, youth homicides dropped 80 percent from 1990 to 1995. Similarly, Salinas, California, experienced a 200 percent increase in the total number of homicides from 1984 to 1994. After receiving federal funding, the city improved it anti-gang task force and developed a series of additional programs. As a result of these programs, gang related assaults decreased by 23 percent, and the homicide rate fell by 62 percent.

Federal Law

In his 1997 state of the union address, President BILL CLINTON requested that Congress "mount a full-scale assault on juvenile crime...

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