The purpose of this study is to understand the reason people join gangs and their impact on the community. By focusing on the American context, this study will highlight the devastating effects of gangs in the contemporary world. This research was conducted to establish the primary reasons that compel individuals to join gangs and engage in delinquent behavior. The study used in-depth interviews with three respondents, who were former gang members before serving time. Likewise, this research recollects their views on gang membership and its impact on their adult life. From the interviews conducted on the three former gang members, this study established neighborhood influence and parental neglect as the leading factors that expose individuals to gangs and delinquent behavior. However, the small sample population affected the credibility of the study and its ability to successfully highlight why people join gangs.
Gang Involvement and Delinquency Among Middle-Aged African-American, Hispanic, and Caucasian Males in the U.S.
Gangs have far-reaching implications on the community because of their ability to increase the crime rate, which hinders growth and development. It should be noted that gang members create a bad image for young people who look up to them and ignore any approaches by their parents and instructors to guide them through the educational process. Given their access to easy money to sustain an expensive lifestyle and freedom, gangs interfere with the thought process of young people by creating a false impression of life outside the learning environment. Those who succumb to the pressure of associating with the criminal groups end up dropping out of school and become exposed to the challenges of unemployment. Other issues that are likely to affect young people who join criminal gangs include drugs and substance abuse and incarceration.Notably, investors consider the security status of a neighborhood before setting up business enterprises in the areas. From this realization, many gang-infested regions are undeveloped because of their low-value, which hinders individuals from accessing equal opportunities like their counterparts in high-income settlement areas.
According to a 2018 report on the U.S. murder rate, five out of 100,000 are victims of violent crime. Detroit, Michigan is the most violent city in the U.S. with a violent crime level of 19.5 per 1000 people, with the chance of being attacked standing at 1:51 (Cooney et al., 2019). From this perspective, many individuals shun away from settling in Detroit because of the high probability of becoming a crime victim. Despite the efforts from the relevant institutions, the crime rate in Detroit has remained at a record high, indicating the deeply-rooted status of crime in the region. Criminologists view crime from a five-dimensional approach that allows individuals to overcome the effects of the dangerous activity. They include violent crime, property crime, and white-collar crime (Macfarlane, 2019). Others are victimless or consensual crime and organized crime. The concept of crime is often defined from the above-mentioned types, as individuals focus on developing feasible approaches that can be used to mitigate the dangerous impact of the outcome on the relationship of individuals in their immediate environment.
Even though gangs do not always lead to violent outcomes, young people should be guided in their growth and development stage to understand the consequences of their life decisions on other people. Joining gangs is a rite of passage for many young individuals in low-income households because of the type of interactions available during their childhood experiences. Many criminologists believe that role models can be inculcated in the gangs to help individuals differentiate between the positive and negative attributes of social groups (Gallupe& Gravel, 2018). Highlighting the impact of crime on societal growth requires active participation from community leaders where they can demonstrate the need to shun away from criminal activities due to their adverse effects on the community. Understanding the criminal mindset allows individuals to develop perfect approaches that respond to violent crime in the contemporary world. Besides, crime reduction policies and initiatives should focus on providing viable alternatives to affected population groups involved in crime, with the hope of improving their perspectives towards life.
This study will engage three middle-aged African-American, Hispanic, and Caucasian males in the U.S. and explore their attitude towards crime. Besides, the focus on the three representatives of both the minority and majority population groups will help identify any anomalies that emerge during their interactions with law enforcement agencies and other crime intervention strategies in their surroundings. All three participants interviewed in this study noted that gang life was not fun and if given a chance to restart their lives, they would not join the gangs. The three respondents indicated that they were lured into gang life by the basic pleasures of life that include easy access to money and freedom, which influenced their thought process. However, the lack of parental love, economic instability, and family involvement in criminal activities are some of the issues why the participants joined criminal gangs when growing up. Some of the data collection methods that have been used in this study include interviews and content analysis.
It is unclear whether restorative justice is more effective than traditional approaches of resolving crime in addressing recidivism in the world today. In this regard, further research is needed to establish the impact of each of the crime interventions on the probable behavior of offenders in future. Likewise, the unavailability of data regarding the positive effects of restorative justice undermines the efforts being made to respond to the high crime levels across the country (Schiff, 2018). Instead, the criminal justice system should collaborate with researchers to highlight the impact of the measures in addressing crime in affected areas. However, the high cost of conducting community-based programs hinders sociologists from engaging the people to influence their perspectives towards crime. There is a need to develop complex data collection methods that are aligned with the high number of community programs that fall outside the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system.
Definition of Gang – There appears to be no single definition for gang due to the fact that they assume various criminal forms. However, various scholars have defined gang activity based on their different findings, which focus on the impact of their involvement in criminal activities on the community growth and development. Thrasher (1936) defined gang as, “an interstitial group originally formed spontaneously and then integrated through conflict, and characterized by meeting face to face, milling, movement through space as a unit, conflict and planning. The behavior develops a tradition, unreflective internal structure, esprit de corps, solidarity, group awareness, and attachment to a local territory” (Thrasher, 1936). From this realization, involvement in gang activity is highly condemned because of its ability to escalate crime levels in community settings, exposing individuals to a wide range of risks that affect their perspectives towards life.
However, the definition of gang has changed over the years because of the emergence of new criminal approaches that expose unsuspecting individuals to different risks that undermine their existence. For instance, Klein defined gang as any notable adolescent group of youngsters who are: 1) generally perceived as a distinct aggregation by others in their neighborhood, 2) recognize themselves as a notable group (almost invariably with a group name), and 3) have been involved in a sufficient number of delinquent incidents to call forth a consistent negative response from neighborhood residents and/or law enforcement agencies (Klein, 1971).There are different types of gangs around the world that are involved in various criminal activities that undermine the purpose of human existence. The structure of a particular gang is based on the needs for group maintenance or development. Some gangs are viewed as loose knit, while others are well organized. According to Thrasher (1936), it is possible that the loosely knit characterization refers to process, while the well-organized characterization refers to gang structure, form, or longevity of the gang. From this distinction, there is a need to understand the motive of joining gangs and their impact on community growth and development.
Young people are easily wooed to join criminal groups and gangs because of low education attainment, unstable or broken home settings, and recognition, which allows them to fit in their circles. While the motive of joining gangs may vary as one interacts with different individuals, many gang members reconsider their life choices while transitioning from one age group to another because of aspects such as intervention programs that offer individuals with better choices in life. Gangs are not good for society because of their harmful impact on the perspectives held by individuals towards life. For instance, the influence of gangs in schools is mostly witnessed through the changing behaviors of young people and their lack of interest for learning programs, which affect their life. Many sociologists portray gangs as a social problem that undermines the quality of relations between the people and institutions such as the law enforcement agencies. From this realization, gangs are more disastrous than other youthful groups because of their high level of violence, which ruins the quality of life for individuals in the crime-infested areas.
People usually join gangs for various reasons such as; peer pressure, low self-esteem, or to gain sense of belonging in a community or society, as a means of survival in the society. In the same vein, excitement or thrill, learning problems, and family breakups/instabilities also motivate individuals to join criminal groups (Montemayor, 1994Akbar,). However, the need to get protection or poweras a way of gaining respect is a common aspect that influences young people to associate with criminal gangs in their immediate environment. Given the different motivation used by individuals to justify their involvement in criminal activities, many studies have demonstrated the adverse impact of gangs and how they mislead young people from accomplishing their goals and desired objectives. Also, in areas where racial discrimination is prevalent, the minority race is exposed financial challenges, which compel them to join criminal gangs and acquire an edge that allows them to compete with their counterparts in high-income neighborhoods (Mavrich, 2017). From this realization, the reasons for joining gangs are correlated to the basic human wants, which are however expressed or acquired in a jeopardizing approach that hinders individuals from accomplishing their expected outcomes.
Involvement in gang activity not only increases the chances of a member being imprisoned but also the risk of being killed. According to Cassada(2010), a person may join gangs as means of having a place to hang and be productive. The gangs gradually impart the doctrine of brotherhood or sisterhood to their new member as a means of wooing the newbie. The members are made to feel they actually do not need anyone else in their life apart from their newfound brothers or sisters. New members in a criminal gang develop the notion that the gang will forever “take care of them” (Akbar, 2018).However, interacting with different individuals who were at some time members of criminal gangs refute this standpoint because of what their life has become. If gang members survive getting killed, they end up with a criminal record, which affects their life after jail. For this reason, the desire to be associated with a gang declines as they age because of the numerous challenges that affect their quality of life in their adult phase.
Another reason why people join gangs is due to peer pressure. Peer pressure is the power of influence from members of one’s age group and is a key determinant of teenagers’ characters ranging from clothing preference to drug usage, which define their quality of life as adults. Mutual interactions among teenagers are vital for personal growth and development because of their ability to influence their perspectives towards life (Walters, 2018). In a criminal context, new recruits experience the negative attribute of peer pressure as they develop the feeling of prestige from the influence of peer groupings. In this regard, young people derive the feeling of ‘popularity and prestige’ from acts of social violence, alcohol or drugs misuse, and amorous activities. Unfortunately, the new recruits spend most of their time in the company of friends as compared to their parents or guardian, who could be blamed for their limited control over their children. By succumbing to the influence of peer pressure, young people are easily wooed to participate in delinquent behaviorsuch as bullying, car theft and smoking or drinking before engaging in serious crimes such as robbery, andburglary (Harding, 2020). Even though a person may have the moral upbringing that hinders them from tolerating gang activities, the need to blend in the group may force him or her to be part of the criminal associations. Unfortunately, the gang may even pressurize new members to commit violent crimes to win their trust and loyalty.
According to Alleyne and Wood (2010), gang membership is inspired by a reciprocal relationship between the individual (poor neighborhood, school and family environments), and weakened social bonds. The scholars argue that people who engage in deviant behavior do so when their bond to society weakens. Gang members in the United States are overwhelmingly young on entry to criminal groups, with 12–18-year-old youth being exposed to the risk. Gang members have been found to come from a background of low socioeconomic status, neighborhood with existing gangs and high in juvenile delinquency. In the same vein, family factors, such as poor parental management, familial criminality, and gang-involved family members provides young people with an opportunity to join gangs and engage in delinquent behavior. Also, delinquent pressure from peers increases the likelihood of antisocial behavior and gang membership. Alleyne and Wood (2010) further portray gang membership as a result of selection where gangs select and recruit members who are already delinquent. This way, gangs have an easy time instructing the new recruits to engage in criminal activities because of their mindset.
Taylor (2013) describes gang from the concept ofacquired criminal behavior with the principal part of this learning coming from within closely-guarded personal groups. Gang membership, recruitment and socialization is a combination of a person’s interest in criminal activity. Likewise, contact with gang membersand a willingness to commit violent acts against other people is also a key attribute of gangs in the contemporary world. Taylor’s research explores the family impact on gang involvement and how it compels individuals to manifest a “consistent pattern of interaction with rational adult parents in a normative family socialization process.” In the study, Taylor stresses that childhood growth and development is important, particularly in the formative years where the child is developing morally,socially,emotionally, and physically, as well as, intellectually. Neuroticism is a major dimension in personality nomenclature and classifies the chronic tendency towards the experience of negative thoughts and feelings, including anxiety, anger, hostility, self-consciousness, impulsivity, and vulnerability. According to (Roelofs et al., 2006) psychopathological problems in children and adolescents can be categorized as internalizing or externalizing problems. Internalizing refers to feelings of anxiety and depression, and externalizing, manifests in disruptive, aggressive, and antisocial behavior. From this realization, a child’s immediate environment determines their future involvement in criminal activities and their ability to engage in activities that influence their perspectives towards life.
It should be noted that low self-esteem has a significant relationship with delinquency, antisocial behavior, and aggression, which are criticalelements of gang membership. Research supports the premise that youth with less confidence and self-esteem, and weak bonds with a pro-social environment and network (schools and family) are more likely to look toward gangs than youth who are more confident. In addition, self-esteem has a dynamic relationship with gang membership. It plays a central role in determining whether a young person can join a gang, participateas a member, and leave the gang. A young person with low self-esteem anticipates gang support and, consequently, as the group esteem goes up (owing to success in delinquent and antisocial activities) their esteem parallels. However, if a gang member wants to leave the gang, it would require a high self-esteem in order to resist the pressure from the gang. Besides, many criminal groups have strict rules that hinder members from leaving the gangs at will due to the risk of being exposed to law enforcement agencies and other institutions.
When selecting respondents to participate in a research activity, scholars consider the professional expertise of individuals, their technical skills, and their ability to balance between life and other aspects of society. Given the nature of this study, I considered my relationship with individuals who are or were members of gang groups at some point in their life, as opposed to approaching strangers who might be suspicious of my research activities. It should be noted that Interviewee 1 was my classmate and did not have any problems participating in the study and referred me to Interviewee 2 who was uneasy at first before I explained my relationship with Interviewee 1. However, Interviewee 3 was skeptical and did not want me to record our interactions despite having the conversation about his experience with gangs online. At the end of the session, Interviewee 3 was glad that I did not judge him and was apologetic about his skepticism, which limited us from conducting a physical interview.
It was important to engage respondents from different population groups because of their ability to incorporate the much-needed diversity in the study. Interviewee 1 is an African-American in his mid-twenties. He dropped out of high school but later enrolled in a learning institution for his GED. However, his criminal record has hindered him from getting employed in the corporate world, compelling him to work in a restaurant. Interviewee 2 is also in his mid-twenties and was a member of a criminal gang. Unlike Interviewee 1, Interviewee 2’s highest education level is the middle school. His parents were never at home and did not follow up with his education, exposing him to peer pressure, which led him to join the criminal gangs. Interviewee 2’s Hispanic identity did not affect his interactions with other people. Interviewee 3 is a white male in his thirties and was part of a gang called the Full-Bloodied Russians (FBR). Unlike the other two interviewees, Interviewee 3 has an associate’s degree in Applied Science but is limited by his criminal record to secure a well-paying job. He was the most difficult interviewee because of his concerns about the role of the interview and its impact on his perspective towards life.
Interviewee 1 is an easy-going character and is willing to participate in this study because of our friendship, which goes way back. I told him that this interview was part of a research process I was undertaking to accomplish my learning goals, a move that he is willing to support. We reminisced our high school days and life after school as we catch up on our previous relations. I interviewed him at his place and recorded the entire conversation to assist me with accurate recollection of the details. Interviewee 1 linked me with Interviewee 2, whom they met at therapy. The introduction was critical because of its impact on his thought process. However, he insisted to meet in a public place and was easy about my need to record the interview. Unlike Interviewee 1 and 2, Interviewee 3 was paranoid and only insisted to participate in the study via a Zoom call. Despite our limited interactions, he switched off his video camera and discouraged me from recording the conversation.
After conducting the interviews, a number of results were established that helped the study identify some of the underlying factors that compel individuals to join gangs. It should be noted that the entire research method was influenced by the need to provide feasible solutions to the research questions and demonstrate the impact of criminal activity in societal growth and development. Despite the increased focus towards the development of proactive measures that influence the thought process of individuals, the study established that neighborhood influence plays a critical role in defining the perspectives of individuals towards criminal activity. Importantly, a person’s immediate environment plays a significant role in shaping their perspectives and influences their behavior, which exposes them to delinquent behavior. In the same vein, peer pressure from friends and other individuals in their surroundings compels people to join gangs and commit a wide range of criminal activities, which influence their perspectives towards life. However, lack of adult interaction and parental neglect increases the probability of young people to join gangs and defy the societal norms. The interviewees demonstrated a certain level of remorse and distaste for gangs because of their adverse impact on their life and hindrance towards succeeding in other aspects of society.
All three participants acknowledge the role of peer pressure and neighborhood influence on their decisions to join criminal gangs and engage in delinquent behavior, which exposed them to the criminal justice system. Each of these three respondents had a good life ahead of them but succumbed to the pressures of life and the need to fit in their immediate environment.
Interviewee 1 says, “there is no purpose in joining a gang. It’s just a lot of lonely people looking for a place to belong and feel wanted.”
From his perspectives about gangs, Interviewee 1 is remorseful about his criminal past and believes he could be a better person if he had stayed away from the gangs. He indicates that the gangs have had a negative impact on his life and present a problem during his interactions with other people. Interviewee states that some of his aspects of his old gang life still affect him today due to their influence on the thought process of other people in his surroundings.
“The first thing that comes to mind is that I have several gang-related tattoos that are all over my body. They serve as a reminder of my past involvement in gang life and people are always asking me about them. Sometimes they are offended by them and sometimes I know I am looked at negatively because of them. Even though I no longer am affiliated, I am still judged by these tattoos.”
Interviewee 2 says he joined his gang when he was 11 years old. During our interview, he recalls how delinquent youths used to harass individuals on their way home from work or school. At some point, he recalls that he had no choice other than to become a gang member because of their family’s low economic-status. It should be noted that many minority population groups settle in low-income areas because of the structural discrimination in the U.S., which hinders them from pursuing their desired goals and objectives (Han et al., 2018). Interviewee 2 says that his familial criminality influenced him to become a gang member, as he did not have a reason to join the criminal group.
“I joined my gang at eleven years old and, to be honest, I can’t say just one thing made me do it. We were poor and gangs pervaded the way to and from school. My uncles were all in gangs and my home life was terrible. I didn’t feel loved and I was a scared child in a cruel world who had to play tough or be someone’s pet victim – get my money, shoes, or bike taken from me. I started out being like my uncles but escalated to being “feared and respected” as my own name grew to be known. To this day, I can’t answer why I started exactly.”
Today, many parents neglect their children in pursuit of material wealth, which is expected to enable them expose their young ones to an enabling environment where they can accomplish their desired goals and objectives. Existing research indicates that people who were neglected in their childhood by their parents have a higher probability of being arrested as adults than their counterparts who were exposed to parental love (Morris et al., 2019). Many states have imposed stringent rules that punish parents who neglect their children because of its impact on the perspectives of young people towards life. Regardless of the parenting approaches individuals use on their children, they should be concerned about their whereabouts to lower the chances of succumbing to peer pressure and becoming gang members. Interviewee 2 says that he never had an authentic family experience, a feeling that pushed him towards the gangs.
“I never had a real family atmosphere. I thought that in my embracing a gang I would feel that. But I was so wrong. All it brought was more chaos in my life. The same people that I protected were witnesses against me in court.”
Interviewee 3 reiterates the comments made by Interviewee 2 where he laments about the unavailable nature of his parents during his childhood.
“At the time I needed them, yes. I was a lost kid who parents didn’t give a fuck about anything but themselves. They made us leave everything behind and move from Arizona to New York City. I didn’t know anyone or anything and they covered the holes my parents couldn’t. My parents were too fucking busy worrying about everything else but their own kids.”
Throughout the interview sessions, the findings depict a growing need to expose young people to a conducive environment where they can experience numerous aspects of growth and development. Government agencies should step in and enhance the security in low-income neighborhoods to avoid exposing children to an environment that affects their ability to accomplish their desired goals and objectives (Arefi, 2021). In the same vein, individuals should be cognizant of the fact that parental neglect has far-reaching implications, which interfere with the thought process of individuals towards crime and other aspects of society. Therefore, the government should work closely with individuals and create an enabling environment that supports the nature of interactions between young people and the community to eliminate the factors that encourage them to become gang members.
Many crime-infested neighborhoods are undeveloped because of their low-value, which hinders individuals from accessing equal opportunities like their counterparts in high-income settlement areas.Sociologists believe that the realization of better outcomes is a collective responsibility that should be undertaken by both the government and parents in exposing young people to an environment where they can pursue their goals without encountering any distractions (Freilich& Newman, 2017). In this research, the participants provided honest feedback regarding their views and perspectives towards crime, which led the study to develop a set of findings that explain why people join gangs.
The findings generated in this study not only provide a sense of direction to the world’s prevalent problems but also highlights some of the primary factors that influence individuals from accomplishing their desired goals and objectives. Becoming gang members exposes one to a criminal record that affects their life forever. For instance, all respondents interviewed in this study could not access white-collar jobs because of their criminal record, which taints their academic and professional success. However, the study also highlights the impact of neighborhood influence and parental neglect on a person’s desire to join gangs and engage in delinquent behavior.
It should be noted that this research had a limited scope because of the number of respondents who participated in the study. A big sample population exposes researchers to an enabling environment where they can collect diverse information from the respondents and generate credible experiences because of the size of the representative sample. Another limitation encountered in this study was the challenge in recruiting qualified interviewees amidst a pandemic. Interviewee 3 was adamant regarding his participation in the research before I managed to convince him. Besides, some of the emerging issues in collecting accurate information such as memory lapse, mistrust, and their unwillingness in sharing information also posed a problem in this study. Future attempts on this research topic should engage different professionals, who can bypass the challenges associated with gaining trust among former delinquents.
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