Youth Gang: Characteristics, Prevention and Intervention

The topic of youth gangs has emerged as a major issue of serious concern in many communities in Canada and almost in all other countries in the world, especially for the law enforcement community. This paper reviews the research literature available in print and published on the Internet.

Due to the diversity of gang phenomena, no universally accepted definition of “youth gang” exists in the research literature. For the purpose of the present paper, the Klein and Maxson definition seems to be the most acceptable one: "[A gang is] any denotable..... group [of adolescents and young adults] who (a) are generally perceived as a distinct aggregation by others in their neighborhood, (b) recognize themselves as a denotable group (almost invariably with a group name), and (c) have been involved in a sufficient number of [illegal] incidents to call forth a consistent negative response from neighborhood residents and/or enforcement agencies."

Research indicates that the emergence and continued existence of youth gangs may be attributed to socio-economic (poverty and unemployment, actual or perceived disadvantage), family-related (dysfunctional, abusive or negligent family), school (poor academic performance and low attachment to schools) and community (disorganized, crime-prone and unsafe) factors. All of these elements contribute to marginalization of youth. Other factors include youths' needs for acceptance, love, discipline, structure, money, safety, personal protection and drugs and negative individual/biological factors (anti-social attitudes, FASD).

Available research evidence demonstrates that, although so-called youth gang members' age s range from eight to 50+ in some cases, the average age tends to be 14-16. It also shows that there are more male than female gang members, and many gang members happen to come from socially marginalized and disadvantaged ethnic minority groups. A recent tendency of youth gangs to include older youths or young adults has also been noted. Most well established gangs tend to have codes of conduct , initiation rites and a distinct style and colour of clothing; they use graffiti, tattoos and special terminology to identify themselves as well as to mark their turfs. The price of non-compliance could be physical punishment, even death.

Gang-related crimes range from minor to serious, such as: graffiti, burglary, theft, vandalism, motor vehicle theft, arson, assault, drive-by shooting, selling crack, powder cocaine, marijuana and other drugs, home invasion, arson, intimidation, rape, robbery, shooting, and homicide. They may also engage in fraud, pirating and selling movies and music, identity theft, witness identification and intimidation, and communicating with other members of their gangs through cell phones, the Internet, and computers.

Most researchers believe that for the majority of youths who join gangs, gang membership is a transitory experience — lasting for one year or less. However, in some circumstances such as multigenerational or highly structured gangs, youths, especially the hard-core or long-term members, may find it difficult to leave. The desire to leave a gang may arise from natural maturation and wish to lead a stable, "normal" life, and/or from fear for personal safety, of incarceration, or the loss of key individuals to drug-abuse, injury or death. A strong support network and provision of life-skills are crucial for the successful re-integration of these youths into the mainstream. Researchers believe that gang membership has both short and long-term consequences for the youths and the community. Examples include risks of arrest, of incarceration, of injury and/or a violent death, and non-transition to normal adult life-style that includes legitimate employment. The impact on the community, justice system and health care system is also enormous, and sometimes not well recognized.


Combating gang problems is a serious challenge faced by the law enforcement community as well as society in general. Research indicates that gang phenomena are extremely complex in their origin and functioning, in which socio-economic, psychological, family-related, personal factors, to name just a few, contribute to youths creating, joining and remaining in gangs. The basic premise for any prevention and intervention effort seems to be that programs must be targeted at providing at-risk and gang-involved youth with legitimate alternatives for fulfilling their basic needs such as love, discipline, structure, belonging, personal safety and protection. In other words, any gang-reduction or -prevention program must include support and counseling for youths and their families (especially for hard-to-reach families and communities) education and training for youth toward earning an honest livelihood, and building skills for conflict resolution. It should also provide provision of recreational opportunities (for example, after-school programs) that offer youth a healthy lifestyle alternative as well as a sense of self-worth and self-respect . Anti-bullying programs may also help in reducing reliance on physical violence for youths' protection and personal safety.

Researchers described several examples of evaluated and effective programs in the USA (but rarely in Canada ), designed to combat youth gang problems. Depending on the extent and stage of the problem, primary, secondary or tertiary intervention efforts were considered necessary.

The Tri-Agency Resource Gang Enforcement Team (TARGET) was judged to be an effective program by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). It aimed at reducing gang problems by selective incarceration of identified most violent and repeat gang offenders, enforcement of probation controls (graduated sanctions and intensive supervision) on younger, less violent gang offenders, and arrests of gang leaders in “hot spots” of gang activity. Movimiento Ascendencia (Upward Movement) for female youth aged 8 to 19 in Pueblo, Colo rado was an after-school prevention/intervention program that offered academic s kills enhancement, recreation, and other interpersonal skills training and mentoring to at-risk and gang-involved girls. Other effective or promising programs were: Boys and Girls Club Gang Prevention Through Targeted Outreach , the Detention Diversion Advocacy Project (DDAP) in San Francisco , "Operation Ceasefire" implemented by the Boston Police Department's Youth Violence Strike Force and "Gang Resistance Is Paramount (GRIP), " in Paramount , California .

A well-known preventive national program in the USA called Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.) consisted of middle school -based education presented by police officers. It focused on crime and victimization, prejudice and cultural sensitivity, conflict resolution skills, drugs and neighbourhoods , personal responsibility, and setting goals. The general conclusion, based on a number of evaluations of G.R.E.A.T; is that since youth gang problems and the related criminal activities were caused by a multitude of factors and presented a complex challenge, the solution too might need a combination of approaches such as the G.R.E.A.T. and Spergel and Curry's Comprehensive Gang Model. The Comprehensive Gang Model has been used to combat gang violence in the Little Village area of Chicago and later at five other OJJDP demonstration sites (Bloomington-Normal , Illinois; San Antonio, Texas; Mesa, Ariz ona; Tucson , Arizona; and Riverside, California) across the US.

Researchers pointed out that the OJJDP had engaged in an integrated approach to the youth gang problem, comprising (i) community mobilization, (ii) social intervention, including prevention and social outreach, (iii) opportunities provision, (iv) suppression/social control and (v) organizational change and development. The preliminary results seemed to be encouraging, and a planning guide to help communities apply the comprehensive approach mentioned above was available. A combination of strategies seemed to be the most efficient way of dealing with gang problems. For example, in areas where there might be risk of gang proliferation, awareness, education and training similar to the Gang Resistance, Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.) might be beneficial; in areas already experiencing gang activities, intervention could be effective, and in areas where the gang problem was serious, targeted suppression (as was practised in Boston) might be necessary. This implies that a thorough and accurate assessment of each community's gang problem should be undertaken as a first step to plan, develop and implement appropriate strategies.

Gathering and analyzing accurate information about gangs, their activities and territories is of paramount importance for combating gang problem because an analysis of gang criminal activities, and geographical analysis can guide police operations and priorities. Meeker, Parsons and Villa (2002) described a collaboration between the local police and university researchers in developing a geographic information system (GIS)-based regional gang incident tracking system (GITS) that was utilized successfully in Orange County, California.

Empirical evidence has shown that community mobilization was one of the most effective strategies in addressing the gang problem. Community mobilization and strengthening, and sharing resources at the grassroots level, need to be integrated with long-term prevention strategies in any gang-reduction program. Social intervention for youth already involved in gang activities, and targeted suppression of hard-core gang members known for their repeated serious crimes, might also be required under some circumstances. General suppression alone has not succeeded in reducing youth gang activities. Research also points out the effectiveness of a multi-faceted, multi-partner, comprehensive, and balanced strategy to prevent, reduce and combat gang problems.

Some researchers have made recommendations for a national strategy that should have the following components: early educational interventions, expansion of health and mental health services, family support programs, constructive, rehabilitative activities for offenders instead of incarceration, and drug and alcohol abuse treatment programs. In addition, attention must be given to reduction of racial inequality, poverty, inadequate services, and to better preparation of the next generation for employment. Thus, there seems to be a recurrent theme of addressing the root causes of the problem and efforts for effective re-integration of gang-involved youth who wish to leave.

Huff and Shafer (2002) suggested that frequent and regular interaction between the police and the community was likely to be effective in addressing gang problems. In Community-Oriented Policing, the police were not in the typical post-incident reactive mode. Their longitudinal research supported the superiority of the intervention and prevention approaches over the suppression approach, which was most often the way gang-related problems were managed by police. Huff (2002) presented some examples to indicate the effectiveness of an integrated , collaborative approach between the community and the police in reducing gang problems in some parts of the United States . He acknowledged some difficulties of successful community policing to deal with gang problems. Need for resources - both human and economic - might increase in the short run. Improving intelligence capacities, sharing intelligence and coming to a consensus regarding necessary actions with other community agencies might present a challenge to some police agencies. Police must also strive to sustain strong community involvement. It was believed that at present police services all over the world recognized the need to combine intervention with prevention, and the result was the development of the concept of crime prevention through social development (CPSD). The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) has officially endorsed the CPSD strategy, especially as an essential part of its Youth Strategy. As well, most provincial and municipal police forces in Canada have also created programs or community partnerships.

It seems that law enforcement community has a logical role in providing leadership in efforts to reduce and prevent youth gangs. The RCMP's community policing foundation and restorative justice principles are especially consistent with playing a leadership role in this area, provided there are sufficient resources available. It should also be possible to develop an effective gang-related incident tracking system that does not rely on individual offence data currently collected in the Uniform Crime Records system. Modeling after the "Safer Sunderland Strategy" of Sunderland , UK , the RCMP has initiated a plan to develop and implement a crime reduction and prevention plan in Nunavut . This approach is not targeted specifically at combating the youth gang problem; however, it is expected to have a wider benefit for the entire community.

Based on the results of the Canadian Police Survey 2002, Mellor, MacRae, Pauls and Hornick (2005) made several recommendations towards a comprehensive and effective strategy for combating youth criminal gangs. They suggested that the strategy should be based on complete and accurate information on the types of gangs active in various Canadian jurisdictions; the causal factors for youth to get involved in such gang-related criminal activities; the extent to which the risk factors, motivation and opportunity for their involvement were present; presence of active recruitment and the places where this might take place; the possible protective factors; the nature of interactions and interconnection among gangs and known effective strategies in other countries. They believed that research involving community needs assessment, surveys of schools, of targeted high-risk youth communities, of youth detention centres, provincial and federal correctional centres and targeted evaluation of primary, secondary and tertiary prevention programs would provide the necessary knowledge to develop an effective strategy.

About one-third of agencies (35%) that participated in the 2002 Canadian Police Survey indicated having a dedicated gang unit and/or gang officers in place, or having sworn officers with gang-related duties (41%). However, very few agencies (14%) across Canada reported having established a gang prevention unit or having dedicated gang prevention officers.

Several examples of police and community partnerships or plans for such partnerships exist in the research literature. Partners might be schools, city or municipal authorities, businesses, churches, community service organizations, housing societies and criminal justice agencies. Youths from high-risk areas as well as other areas are potentially valuable partners. Canadian police have been performing prevention and law enforcement duties in several diverse roles in the community for many years. In combating gang problems in Canadian communities, it may not be a choice of one or the other approach exclusively, as research cited above has indicated that a combination of strategies tailored to the unique need of each community might be the most effective one. Some of the recommendations made by police officers in a study by Arcand and Cullen were:

·         Provide sustainable funding, not just for pilot studies with duration of one or two years

·         Encourage sincere commitment by senior officers to crime prevention as real policing, and promotion as well as reward for such actions

·         Offer training for building effective partnerships with other police departments and communities

·         Ensure proper evaluation of programs

·         Include information on social risk factors in national training programs for police.

Conclusion and Recommendations

It was clear from this report that there were not many evaluated programs for prevention, intervention and suppression of youth gangs in Canada . In view of this fact, it seems unwise to reject and not to utilize the components found in effective programs in the USA or any other country simply because they are not Canadian. In particular, the strategies that address the root causes of youth crime, and especially gang problems, need to be seriously considered, with a thorough understanding of the local circumstances and dynamics included in developing made-in-Canada strategies.

Data indicated that the risk factors for adolescent problem behaviours within gangs or outside gangs were very similar. It seems logical therefore, that providing appropriate support, guidance and services to address these root causes in the community, family and schools would be useful to combat not only gang problems but also random youth delinquency.

Any prevention/intervention strategy will need to be cognizant of possible politics of the situation and will need to strike the correct balance in its approach. In order to gain community support, it must be perceived by the community as fair and sensitive . The RCMP already emphasizes problem-oriented policing, based on observation, analysis and targeted response, in training its cadets. A complex situation such as a pervasive and ever-increasing youth gang problem , especially where racial tensions might exist, may require education and extensive training of police in more advanced and complex problem-solving and interpersonal skills.

The review of research literature suggests the following steps for developing and implementing any effective strategy to address youth gang problems:

1.    Acknowledgment of the problem rather than denial is crucial to developing solutions.

2.    An accurate and systematic assessment of the problem is very important. This can be achieved by involving representatives of police, schools, probation, youth agencies, former gang members, grassroots organizations, all levels of government , and other stakeholders. Another approach might be to track Internet information about gangs and their activities through exploring their websites or electronic turfs and their electronic messages and graffiti.

3.    Set goals and objectives based on a common understanding of the key concepts and the assessment of the problem. At the same time, focus on desired changes in the affected community.

4.    The law enforcement community is well positioned to provide leadership in gang prevention and reduction efforts, and in coordinating a multi-agency approach. It is important to establish a c lear articulation with rationale, of the assignment of responsibilities to each participating agency for r elevant services and activities , and to coordinate these appropriately.

5.    Strategies that combine prevention, intervention, and suppression components seem to be most effective in combating the gang problem. Providing youth-at-risk, gang-involved youth and especially those who wish to leave gangs with pro-social skills training, educational and job opportunities for a healthy lifestyle must be an integral component of any prevention/intervention program.

6.    Increasing awareness of gang problems toward prevention and counseling and support for effective intervention must be provided to the parents and teachers of at-risk and gang-involved youth. An effective gang-prevention/intervention/ suppression program should address all types of risk factors and try to provide the protective factors.

7.    Consideration should be given to ongoing data collection through community-wide surveys, self-reports of youth and official records, monitoring and sharing of gang-related information. This would enable implementation of collaborative, interrelated strategies of formal (through strategic law enforcement and monitoring) and informal (community residents collaborating to maintain safety, order and discipline) social control.

8.    Adequate resources and their proper allocation are essential for such an initiative to be effective.

9.    An evaluation component must be included so that knowledge on this important social issue can increase and contribute toward developing subsequent effective programs and strategies.