Violent crimes committed by juveniles are not diminishing, as other crimes, as reported by the Justice Department statistics, are. We see that juveniles have more access, and more use of the weapons of violence, including gang affiliation.
The problem from the law enforcement angle is: “who is in charge?” There is a see-saw effect between the government or various governmental agencies and the parents. Of course, the focus is on dysfunctional families, frequently one-parent, over-burdened, poverty-stricken families. There are two choices for society: to completely turn their back, as is happening all too often, is to do something to provide an opportunity and a look at a better future for disillusioned, frustrated, angry juvenile offenders.
So why do young people join gangs? First of all, the gang members are overwhelmingly minorities- Hispanic, African-American, Asian. There are two basic reasons for a young disadvantaged youth to join a gang: protection, and a sense of the “family” which he does not have at home- assuming he still has a home to call his. While these two basic reasons are true both on the streets and in prison, the “protection” aspect is certainly far more important in jails, where there are always factions- especially Hispanics against African-Americans, and minorities against white inmates.
There was a time when juvenile “gangs” were romanticized in the movies. The Dead End Kids and the Bowery Boys were depicted as funny and clever street kids who really would not do anyone, except crooks, any harm. Those days are long gone. But, who are these “gangstas” in prisons and on the streets? Delinquency is not an inherited trait, like some forms of diseases or alcoholism. It is acquired through parental neglect, poverty, environment, frustration at society, and, perhaps most important of all, peer pressure. Juvenile delinquency is no different from adult delinquency. It is a blatant and often persistent disregard for law and order, for moral and ethical standards and for the rights of others.
Gang membership among juveniles is on the rise. And even these juveniles are dangerous. “In New York City, adolescent crime is more prevalent than ever….because of the increased mechanization of our culture, it is only a normal progression from sticks and stones of twenty-five years ago to the guns and knives of today.” (Bloch 1976 151)
Gangs, according to police “experts” are much like the better known “crime families” “Usually the leaders do not participate in criminal activities; instead, these activities are carried out by the lowest ranking members…The loyalty of a gang can be compared to that of a family…” (Saccente 1996 66)
What makes juvenile delinquency and gang membership even more frightening are the statistics which show the ever-younger criminals in this country. Juvenile crime statistics show that offenders under the age of 15 represent the leading edge of the juvenile crime problem. “Violent crime grew some 94% among these youngsters from 1990 to 1995- compared with 47% for older youth….Americans are very concerned about juvenile crimes, especially violent crimes.” (Krisberg 1996 214) The trend, therefore, is toward increasing delinquency and crimes committed by ever-younger children. “Homicides by teenagers have more than doubled over the past decade and the public is very concerned about the easy availability of guns for our youth.” (Krisberg, p. 214, 1996)
Putting gang members- especially the younger ones in prison is perhaps the worst possible idea: no matter what the reason for their jailing, chances are their associations in prison will turn them into more expert, hardened criminals when they get out. For the very youngest offenders, chances are they will be expected to ask for protection in return for homosexual favors, which, if that practice continues on the outside, can mean even more serious repercussions by homophobic gang members.
There are various factors increasing this trend: “Experts agree that the rise in juvenile crime has been fueled by the growing influence of a culture ruled by weapons, drugs, and gangs, and by the breakdown of families and communities, as more and more young people grow up in poverty and in single-parent households.” (Carney 1996 193)
With the youth population projected to increase by 31 percent by 2010, “many criminologists and policymakers warn of an unprecedented juvenile crime wave in the next decade.” (Carney 1996 193)
Juvenile crime is not just on the increase, it is spreading from inner cities and big towns into the rural areas of America. Here are some examples of this spread:
“The Posse thoroughly covered all the territory it could get in New York, and then started expanding to Washington, Baltimore and Miami….Chicago has 125 separate youth gangs, ranging in size from 40 to 3,000 members. The worst gangs are also spreading out to Miami and other Southern cities to start new chapters, sell drugs and make money…..Police estimate that Los Angeles has hundreds of street gangs and gang chapters. The total number of members could be as high as 70,000.” (Webb, p. 47, 1995). While some of the leaders of the large gangs tend to be adults (even in their thirties and forties) more and more members are teenagers. Why do even rich teenagers join gangs? Not just for thrills and excitement, drugs, girls, and money. “Many teens feel that they don’t belong anywhere.” (Webb, p. 10, 1995) It is peer pressure, and the preference of young teenagers to “hang out” with their own age groups, rather than stay home with their parents (assuming they have parents).
Sitting in a courtroom as one case after another proceeds, either for remanding to a juvenile detention center, occasionally in the custody of his family or guardian, it becomes obvious that- the empty eyes of most of these juveniles proves that they are ignorant of most everything except the urge to survive somehow. For the most part, the juvenile offenders are not terribly well educated. Most, of course, are black or Hispanic. There are very few Asians although there are now Vietnamese, Japanese, and Chinese gangs forming in West Coast cities. The few white offenders are the only ones seemingly represented by “real” lawyers. And, just as naturally, they are usually sentenced to probation and community service. The rich, even rich juveniles, get away with things that inner city minority juveniles get sent away for.
How much can we fault the family? There are critics that blame the single-parent household: “Children from single-parent families are more prone to commit crime. This is because unmarried mothers often lack the skills to support a family or manage a household. They are more likely to drop out of school become pregnant as teenagers, to abuse drugs, and be in trouble with the law.” (Maginnis, p. 64, 1997).
“The Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency” goes even further: “children from fatherless families use drugs more heavily and commit more crimes throughout their lives….are more likely to be gang members…make up more than 70% of inmates in state reform institutions…account for about 76% of adolescent murders…and are 70% more likely to be expelled from school” (Maginnis, p. 64, 1997). On the other hand, studies have also shown that “marital discord, not lack of one parent, can cause delinquency problems.” ((Wright, p. 69, 1997).
It could be the environment outside the home (i.e. “bad” neighborhoods which create a social status) that could put a youngster more at risk than what happens inside the home.
There are also those who blame moral values. A Philadelphia study has shown that 6 percent of the boys have committed 50% of the crimes. “It is on this basis that James Q. Wilson and other crime doctors can predict with confidence that the additional 300,000 boys who will be 14 to 17 years old in the year 2000 will mean at least 30,000 more murderers, rapists and muggers on the streets than we do today.” (DeJulio, Jr.1997 111) Statistics alone cannot account for juvenile delinquency and gangs on the street today or in the future. Conservatives have come up with what they call “The theory of moral poverty”. By definition this means being without loving, caring, responsible adults who teach you right from wrong. There is also another idea: “We adults now name the young criminals super-predators. Perhaps we should think of them as super-alones. There are children in America who have never been touched or told that they matter.” (Rodrigues, 1996).
It is one thing to study statistics, it is another to talk to some gang members. I was able – on the condition I not name the location or the actual names of the gang and gang members- to get a few to “open up”. The group was divided by me into two segments- those on the street, and those who had been in prison and were willing to discuss, or answer some questions about it.
(Due to restrictions of time and space, I will only submit four interviews, two for each group. And, the transcript will merely allow the respondent to talk….A lot of words and some thoughts not applicable have been edited out.)
Man, like I was thirteen when I started boppin’ around with these guys. My older brother, he was sixteen then- he be dead now- he got me in. I’m the same age he was when he got blown away by——–. It’s my HOME, man. I ain’t got nothin’ back where my Mom lives. She got four other kids, and welfare and food stamps. I don’t wanna live like that. No, I ain’t in school. I’m not stupid, just can’t stand all that regulations…you know, sit there, raise your hand here, do this, write that, be on time, don’t talk, don’t whisper, don’t wear such baggy gang clothes. Shit, I couldn’t take it. I ain’t gonna talk about what I done, or what some of us do. We protect our turf, that’s for sure. We protect each other, ’cause if we don’t, who will? Drugs? Sure, I smoke reefer, and snorted some,. But I don’t do none of that hard stuff. Not sayin’ there ain’t guys that do- but not, like, they’re no-account JUNKIES, who can’t function. We do deal. Yeah, man. Them white kids with money they come and we squeeze every last nickel out of ’em, the way their landlord dads done squeezed our people out-a rent monies. Do I like it with my boys? Damn straight. I mean, what else is there- school drop-out, no experience. You think I’m gonna stand in some stupid outfit and ask a bunch of dumb Niggers “You want fries with that?” What do I wanna do when I get old? I wanna GET OLD. I wanna watch my back, and watch where I go. Maybe I’ll run a few of the younger kids…get them to sell, and I take my commission, or get me some hotlookin’ gals- you know, put ’em out where rich Johns pay for their p—-. Yeah! That sure would be the life! Happy I’m here? You bet you’re a– wouldn’t be nowhere else as safe and comfortable as right with my guys.
I was fourteen when I went off to Juvy—scared as s—, but I didn’t cry or nothin’. I was boostin’ a car when the cops came. So, I get sentenced because that white lawyer wasn’t giving a hoot’s behind for whether I go or stay. So, I went.
For two weeks, we new guys were on sort of a probation. Guards watchin’, tryin’ to make sure we got like- “settled in”, without no hassle, you know what I’m sayin’? Then, we get separated, and put in- well, they ain’t like CELLS, but they room cubicles, with two guys in a cubicle. I got me a mean m—f—– as my cubicle guy. Everybody was casin’ the new guys, hasslin’, tryin’ to find their weak spots…like, you know, do they cry? Do they got gang tats, knife scars, that sort of s—. A bunch o’ Spics tried to cause me some grief, but my roomie, he was on them like Tyson on a flyweight. Then, that night he expected me to pay for his protection. I mean, I know what he wanted and all, but I said- I don’t do nuttin’ like that. He says, you do it, or next time I let them Spics tear you apart. And so, I did it, you know. It was protection. So, what the hell, from then on, nobody bothered me because they all knowed I was- well, they knowed what I was. I was eight years old when I beat up some kid in the park and stole his coat. No way I could-a paid for it, and there was no Momma with money to spare, either. So I took it off-a him, and wore it all winter! Damn. Is there a difference between bein’ in a family on the street or bein’ with one on the inside? Only thing on the inside, you got guards, you can’t sneak into video arcades or movies, or grab a few bucks from some old woman. But, what you do have is someone watchin’ out for you. That’s what life is all about- and that’s what I wanna do the rest of my life. Watch out for someone, and have someone watch out for me. Get a job (LAUGHS)? Doin’ WHAT? I got my boys here I work with- gets me all the money and jewelry I need.
I’m 23. Just got out of _______(Prison). Five years, with time off. Manslaughter. We was fighting and I killed this kid. Well, he was gonna kill me. What was it like in prison? Could-a been worse. Three meals a day. A bunch of guys I knew from before. You know, we was jivin’ together before they got sent away. But, in prison is like on the outside nowadays. Everybody got to choose up sides. Niggers over here. Spics over there. Asians somewhere else. White boys afraid of everybody. And, guards watchin’ you all the time, just hopin’ you do something to make ’em lock you up in like solitary. Do we come out like you sayin’ “hardened criminals”? What we learn in jail we done know already. We may just find a better way of doin’ it, that’s all. And a way of doin’ it without getting caught. Well, besides, I now have a kid, four years old, I never seen till I got out. So, I have all the more reason for not getting caught. Means I gotta do more now to put clothes on the baby and food in his mouth. I already got him a little gang tattoo. It’s cool, man . ‘Course the old lady isn’t so cool about it, but, hell she not around much. I got her workin, you know what I mean? She do it for me and the baby. Which I guess say a lot about what kind of lady she be.
My dad’s in prison, Been there fifteen years now. I was four when he went it. Killed some guy at a 7-11, I guess, He never comin’ out in my lifetime. So, here I am, with these guiyus who are like brothers and Dad to me. They see I get enough to eat. They celebrated my birthday last month. They got me a tattoo, a nose ring and a 16-year old hot b—. Naw, it wasn’t my first. Won’t be my last, either. But, it was the first real birthday I ever had. People call this a gang. Man, this is a family!
“Prison is a natural extension of gang life, and gangs can play an important part in prison by regulating the lives of its members…But there is a second reason why prisons are increasingly important to gang members. Many older gang members who go to prison were leaders in their gangs, and the gangs they leave behind often continue to depend on them…”(Curry 1998 133)
The relationship of prison to street gangs also is a sort of “status symbol”. In some gangs, it is impossible to attain a leadership position unless you have been in prison.
Gangs are, so critics claim, a sign of our times. It is not a matter of high unemployment. Rather, it is a sense of frustration for many that the gulf between rich and poor is now wider than ever. Without a decent education or a work experience background, teen-agers can never hope to attain the material goods they read about or see on TV. For every news story about Donald Trump, there will be a gang member committing some crime to “get his”.
The relationship, therefore between street gangs and prison gangs is that they come from the same background, have the same ambitions, need the same protection, and are willing to sacrifice whatever is necessary to remain a member of a family that, for many, does not, and cannot, exist outside a gang or a prison.
Bloch Herbert A. and Niederhoffer, Arthur: The Gang (1976) Westport CT: Greenwood Press
Carney, Don: “On Stemming Juvenile Crime” Congressional Quarterly, Apr. 1997
Curry, G. David, and Decker, Scott H.: Confronting Gangs (1998) Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing Group
DiJulio, Jr., John J.: “A Lack of Moral Guidance” Juvenile Crime: Opposing Viewpoints San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1997
Editorial “Juvenile Crime” Congressional Digest, Aug/Sept., 1996
Krisberg, Barry: “For Increased Federal Government Control” Congressional Digest Aug/Sept 1996
Los Angeles TIMES Richard Rodrigues column, January 21, 1996
Maginnis, Robert L. “Single Parents Cause Juvenile Delinquency” Juvenile Crime: Opposing Viewpoints San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1997
Saccente, D. “Street Gangs Are Dangerous Criminal Enterprises” (1996) Gangs: Opposing Viewpoints San Diego: Greenhaven Press
Webb, Margot Coping With Street Gangs (1995) The Rosen Publishing Group
Wright, Karen & Kevin “Single Parent Families May Not Cause Juvenile Crime” (NYU Study & Planned Parenthood study) Juvenile Crime: Opposing Viewpoints, (1997) San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1997