Scope of the National Gang Problem
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) reports that youth gangs have increased in number, scope, and level of violence over the past 25 years. Following a marked decline in numbers from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, a steady resurgence of gang problems has occurred in recent years. According to the 2008 National Youth Gang Survey (NYGS), there were more than 27,000 youth gangs in the U.S. in that year, an increase of 28 percent since 2002, and about 775,000 gang members. The annual NYGS was initiated in 1996 and is conducted by the National Gang Center. The survey measures the presence, characteristics, and behaviors of local gangs in jurisdictions throughout the United States. (Legal definitions of gangs and gang crime vary among jurisdictions at state and federal levels-see "Legal Definitions of Gang and Gang Crime.")
The largest increases in gangs and gang members from 2007 to 2008, as shown by NYGS data, occurred in cities with populations of more than 250,000, and these cities continue to be the locus of gang activity in the U.S. However, in smaller population areas (under 250,000) during this same timeframe, youth-serving and law enforcement agencies reported decreases in gangs and gang members. These figures appear to reflect a difference in trends in gang problems in less populated areas.
According to the FBI, gangs account for as much as 80 percent of all crimes in the U.S. In 1992, the FBI announced the Safe Streets Violent Crime Initiative, under which field offices established task forces to focus on gang violence and violent crime. The Violent Gang Safe Streets Task Force developed from the Safe Streets Violent Crime Initiative and involves federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. As of January 2011, there are 168 Safe Streets Task Forces operating in 54 field offices, including Alaska's only Safe Streets Task Force in Anchorage. Over 650 law enforcement agencies and 2,500 law enforcement personnel are part of this national effort. The Safe Streets Task Forces reported 40,840 arrests and 16,666 convictions from 2001 to 2008. The ability of law enforcement agencies at all levels to share information about gangs and gang trends has been enhanced by the development in 2005 of the National Gang Intelligence Center (NGIC). This was further augmented by the merger in 2009 of the National Youth Gang Center with the National Gang Center. The National Gang Center website now maintains data and resources about all gangs in the U.S.
Gang Activity in Alaska
The Fairbanks Gang Assessment, completed in 2010, is the first structured study of gang activity in Alaska. This study was conducted by the UAA Justice Center and the Fairbanks Juvenile Probation office of the Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). The assessment examined the level of gang activity in the Fairbanks North Star Borough ( pop. 96,920) for the Gang Reduction and Intervention Network (GRAIN). (See Table 1.) GRAIN is a consortium of 20 local and state stakeholders, including AHFC Public Housing, Alaska State Troopers, Boys & Girls Club of Fairbanks, City of Fairbanks Mayor's Office, Department of Corrections-Adult Probation & Parole, Department of Labor, Division of Behavioral Health, Division of Juvenile Justice-Juvenile Probation, Eielson Air Force Base, Fairbanks District Attorney's Office, Fairbanks Native Association, Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor's Office, Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, Fairbanks Police Department, Ft. Wainwright Directorate of Emergency Services, Lily of the Valley Church of God in Christ, NAACP-Fairbanks Chapter, Office of Children's Services, Ringstad Park Weed & Seed, and Tanana Chiefs Conference. The Fairbanks Gang Assessment followed the protocol outlined by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) Comprehensive Gang Model. Specifically, the assessment included a review of community demographic information, law enforcement incident reports, student and school survey data, information from gang member interviews, and community resident perceptions survey data.
Gang member interviews were conducted by a juvenile probation officer with 20 male individuals who had self-identified as being involved with a gang. The majority of these individuals were institutionalized or incarcerated at the time of the interview, and all were aware that the interviewer was a juvenile probation officer. Community resident perceptions data were collected through a self-administered mail survey that used the original survey instrument from the OJJDP model. Community residents were selected through a random sample of 500 addresses in Fairbanks, North Pole, Ft. Wainwright, and Eielson Air Force Base. The sample resulted in 103 resident responses, a response rate of 21 percent. Given the low response rate, the findings presented cannot be generalized to the entire Fairbanks North Star Borough (FNSB), and may not be comparable to national studies. Youth-serving and law enforcement agencies in the Fairbanks North Star Borough were identified by GRAIN. A point-of-contact at these agencies was sent an e-mail invitation to participate in an online survey about gangs in their community. Contacts were asked to recruit other participants by forwarding the invitation to other staff in their agency. A total of 249 youth-serving and law enforcement agency staff members completed the survey.
This article examines gang member demographics, gang membership motivation, problems caused by gangs, and possible solutions to gang problems in the community. We will be looking at comparisons from three data sets collected during the assessment process: gang member interviews, community resident perceptions, and youth-serving and law enforcement agencies' perceptions, as well as looking at selected national gang data and trends.
Reports of Gang Activity
The Fairbanks Gang Assessment found that from January 2007 through June 2009, 154 law enforcement reports from eight agencies included gang-related incidents. From these 154 reports, information was collected on a total of 219 suspects. Gang affiliation was unknown for five (2%) of the suspects. Out of the remaining 214 suspects, 200 (93%) were known gang members and 14 (7%) were not (but had committed an offense with a known gang member). Known gang members may be duplicated in these data (i.e., gang members may be included more than once if they committed multiple offenses).
Law enforcement data show that there are at least 12 active gangs in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. The most common gangs found in our data-Crips (58% of law enforcement contacts), Bloods (21% of law enforcement contacts), and Gangster Disciples (15% of law enforcement contacts)-accounted for 94 percent of law enforcement contacts with gang members.
The percentage of crime reported to law enforcement in the FNSB that was attributable to gangs varied from a low of 4.3 percent in 2007 to a high of 7.2 percent in 2008. In 2008, 40 percent of weapons offenses, 10 percent of drug offenses, 5 percent of murders and attempted murders, 5 percent of robberies, 5 percent of sexual assaults, and 4 percent of assaults were attributable to gangs. While from 2007 to 2008 the total number of incidents reported to law enforcement increased by 26 percent, the number of gang-related incidents increased by 113 percent.
The 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY97) contains data from a representative sample of about 9,000 youths who were 12 to 16 years old on December 31, 1996. (The NLSY97 is an on-going long-term cohort study.) The NLSY97 reported that 8 percent of respondents indicated belonging to a gang by the age of 17. Of the number who joined gangs, about 12 percent of Hispanic and African-American youth, respectively, reported having joined a gang by age 17, compared to 7 percent of White youth. In comparison, race and ethnicity of gang members from the 2007 NYGS, show that nearly half of all documented gang members were Hispanic/Latino, 35 percent were African-American/Black, and 9 percent were Caucasian/White. However, racial compositions of gangs varied considerably by locality. For example, rates of White gang membership were lowest in larger cities (8%), but significantly higher in other area types, including rural counties (17%).
It is important to note that the race of gang members identified through the GRAIN assessment varies greatly from the national averages presented above. Of the 200 known gang members in Fairbanks, information on race and ethnicity was available for 196. These data are shown in Table 2. Over half (56%) of the known gang members were African American or Black, while 20 percent were Caucasian/White. Eight percent of known gang members self-identified as Alaska Native or American Indian, 5 percent identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino, and 1 percent identified themselves as Asian.
The 2008 NYGS showed that nationwide almost 90 percent of gang members were male, a trend that appears consistent over past survey years. The NYGS also notes that other studies point to an increase in female gang membership, but that law enforcement agency reports have documented few female gang members. Of the 200 known gang members in Fairbanks, most (96%) were male.
NYGS data reflect that nationally about one-third of gang members are under 18. In Fairbanks, most gang members (75%) were 15 to 21 years old. An important finding is that only 31 percent of gang members were under the age of 18-indicating that most gang members would not be referred to the Division of Juvenile Justice. The age of known gang members is shown in Table 2 (age information was available for 192 gang members). Few members (only two, or 1%) were less than 15 years of age, but 24 percent were 22 years old or older. Overall, one percent of active gang members were 10 to 14 years old, 30 percent were 15 to 17 years old, 45 percent were 18 to 21 years old, 9 percent were 22 to 24 years old, and 15 percent were over 24 of age.
Reasons for Gang Membership
The National Gang Center reports that the two major reasons for youth joining a gang are (1) social-the desire to be with friends/family who are gang members, and (2) protection-the perceived need for safety a gang provides.
During interviews, Fairbanks gang members were asked about gangs, their impact on the community, and why individuals join gangs. If a gang member indicated he believed that gangs were a problem in the community, he was then asked about the top three reasons for these gang problems and for joining gangs. The top three responses included gang members moving into the community from other places (71%), power (59%), and having family problems (29%) and family or friends in a gang (29%). (See Table 3.) Other common reasons for gang problems included poverty, boredom, and lack of activities (24% each). Having difficulties in school, prejudice, and needing to feel loved or a sense of belonging were not identified by gang members as one of the top three reasons for gang problems in the community. Almost all (95%) gang members indicated having friends in gangs and 70 percent reported having family members in gangs (results not shown). These data may have important implications for gang prevention and intervention.
Community residents were also asked to identify the top three reasons, if any, that they believed gang activity existed in their community. (See Table 3.) Community residents who believed that gangs were a problem in their community reported a variety of reasons for the gang problem. Over half of the respondents (61%) identified gang members moving in from other areas as one of the top three reasons for gang activity. Other common reasons identified as being among the top three included having family or friends in gangs (35%), poverty (32%), seeking love and a sense of belonging (28%), needing protection (27%), family problems (23%), a lack of activities for youth (22%), boredom (22%), and school problems (18%). Few respondents believed that power or police labeling were among the top three reasons for gang activity.
Youth-serving and law enforcement agency staff members were also asked about the top three reasons for gang activity in their community. Over half of the respondents identified gangs moving in from other areas (57%) and having family and friends in gangs (53%) among the top three reasons for gang activity. Other common reasons listed among the top three included to feel love and a sense of belonging (37% of respondents), power (33%), lack of activities (29%), family problems (26%), boredom (24%), and poverty (20%). Less common reasons included protection (8%), school problems (5%), and labeling by police (2%). (See Table 3.)
Problems Caused by Gangs
Data from the 2008 NYGS show that about 32 percent of the 3,300 jurisdictions surveyed experienced problems with gang-related crimes, a significant increase from the low of about 24 percent reported in 2001. According to the 2009 National Gang Threat Assessment (NGTA), the movement of gang members from urban areas to suburban and rural areas (gang migration) is contributing to an increase in gang activity. The most common reasons for gang migration according to the National Gang Center include "family relocation to improve the quality of life or to be near relatives and friends." The NGTA notes that gang members have been found on domestic and international U.S. military installations, and military transfers may result in gangs becoming established in new communities. Alaska's recent increase in gang problems may be related, in part, to the large military population in the state.
Six gang-related crimes are tracked by the National Youth Gang Survey: aggravated assault, burglary/breaking and entering, drug sales, larceny/theft, motor vehicle theft, and robbery. Fairbanks Gang Assessment responses from residents and youth-serving and law enforcement agencies reflected concern about some of these types of crimes.
Fairbanks residents were asked to identify the top three gang-related problems, if any, in their community. Twenty respondents (20%) indicated that gangs were not a problem in their community. The remainder (80%) identified a variety of problems. An increase in drug crimes was one of the top three problems (70%), as well as more violent crimes and weapon crimes (54% each), increased fear (38%), and a greater number of public nuisances (29%). Twenty-five percent identified an increase in school disruption, 13 percent noted more fighting, and 10 percent reported increased family disruption. (See Table 4.)
Youth-serving and law enforcement agency staff members in Fairbanks were also asked about the top three problems caused by gangs in the community. Over half of the respondents identified increases in drug crimes (61%), violent crimes (57%), and weapon crimes (56%) among the top three gang problems. Slightly less than half (41%) reported increased fear for safety as one of the top three gang problems. Other problems that were less frequently identified as one of the top three included fighting (30%), school disruption (29%), public nuisance (22%), and family disruption (15%). Seventy five percent of agency staff indicated increases in drug, violence, and weapon crimes were among the top three problems caused by gangs in the community (result not shown).
Responses to Gang Activity
The OJJDP 2010 report, "Gang Prevention: An Overview of Research and Programs," outlines the need for a variety of response strategies to effectively deal with gang activity. The report describes the traditional mix of programs aimed at youth ages 3 to 18, programs that provide a prevention focus on at risk youth and an intervention focus on younger youth already involved in gangs. Suppression tactics by law enforcement that concentrate on violent, older gang members are also part of this traditional model. However, the findings emphasize the importance of a more comprehensive multi-pronged approach to gang prevention, one that can be adapted to a given community, and includes "addressing the needs of individual youth and making changes in the families, organizations, and communities around them."
Gang members in Fairbanks were asked to identify what should be done to address the gang problem in their community. Results from this open-ended question are shown in Table 5. Over a third (35%) of gang members believed that additional opportunities for youth would be a solution to gang problems in their community. Thirty percent said that incarceration or legal sanctions for gang members would help, while 24 percent thought that education about gangs would alleviate gang problems, and 12 percent responded that separating gang members from their gang would be a solution. Only one respondent believed that nothing could be done about gang problems in the community (result not shown). Adult gang members were more likely than juvenile gang members to indicate that additional opportunities for youth, education about gangs, and separating gang members from their gang would be a solution to gang problems. Conversely, juvenile gang members were more likely than adult gang members to indicate that incarceration or legal sanctions would lessen gang problems. (See Table 5.)
Community perceptions of prevention and intervention are shown in Table 6. Community residents were asked to select the three most promising strategies to address local gang problems. Of the residents who believed that gangs presented a problem, 69 percent indicated that mentoring was one of the top three most promising strategies to address local gang problems. Other common strategies identified as being among the top three included job provision and job training (63% of respondents), programs and recreational activities for youth (55%), and additional police protection (49%). Fewer respondents (25%) selected tutoring as one of the top three ways to address gang activity.
When asked about methods to combat gang activity in Fairbanks, youth serving and law enforcement agency staff responded that the most important responses to gang activity were increasing legal sanctions and/or toughening gang crime laws (21%), providing education and awareness about gangs to youth (17%), and increased policing (17%). (See Table 6.) Other suggestions included providing more activities for youth (13%), increasing community involvement in monitoring and reporting gang activity (12%), making more support available to families to increase involvement (4%), and youth mentoring (3%). Some respondents (3%) indicated that there is a need for a coordinated response to gang problems in Fairbanks, specifically between military and civilian police forces.
It is important to note the variance in perspective held by various gang members, the community, and the youth-serving and law enforcement agencies regarding effective ways to combat gang activity.
As a result of this study, GRAIN has received technical assistance from the National Gang Center and has been meeting to create objectives and goals for the community. The Fairbanks community gang task force recently met for the first time and will soon be pursuing their action plan. As more Alaska communities conduct gang assessment studies, a fuller picture of gang activity in the state can be developed. More data will be available for residents, parents, policy makers, youth-serving agencies, law enforcement, and the courts to help youth avoid being drawn into gang activity.
Khristy Parker is a co-author of the Fairbanks Gang Assessment and a research professional at the Justice Center. Shea Daniels is a co-author of the Fairbanks Gang Assessment and a Juvenile Probation Officer with the Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice in Fairbanks; she will present findings from the study at the June 2011 National Gang Symposium in Orlando.
This project was supported by Grant No. 2007-JV-FX-0331 awarded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Legal Definitions of Gang and Gang Crime
Federal law defines a gang as "an ongoing group, club, organization, or association of five or more persons: (A) that has as one of its primary purposes the commission of one or more of the criminal offenses described in subsection (c); (B) the members of which engage, or have engaged within the past five years, in a continuing series of offenses described in subsection (c); and (C) the activities of which affect interstate or foreign commerce." 18 USC § 521(a).
Thirty-nine states (including Alaska) and Washington, D.C., have legislation that defines gang. Alaska defines a criminal street gang as a "group of three or more persons who have in common a name or identifying sign, symbol, tattoo or other physical marking, style of dress, or use of hand signs; and who, individually, jointly, or in combination, have committed or attempted to commit, within the preceding three years, for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with the group, two or more offenses under any of, or any combination of, the following: AS 11.41 (Offenses against a person); AS 11.46 (Offenses against property); or a felony offense." Alaska § 11.81.900
Current federal law describes the term gang crime as "a federal felony involving a controlled substance for which the maximum penalty is not less than five years" or "a federal felony crime of violence that has an element the use or attempted use of physical force against the person of another" or "a conspiracy to commit "a federal felony involving a controlled substance (as defined in Section 102 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 USC Â§ 802)) for which the maximum penalty is not less than five years", or "a federal felony crime of violence that has as an element the use or attempted use of physical force against the person of another"; or "a conspiracy to commit an offense described in paragraph (1) or (2)." 18 USC § 521(c).
Twenty-two states have legislation that defines gang crime/activity.