Many scholars have struggled to define the phenomenon of youth gangs. Even so, there are two distinct elements that are always contemplated when it comes to youth gangs. The first element is the age of the people in youth gangs, and the second one is the deliberate organization of people into a distinct community. Using this as an entry point into the discussion, one could submit that a youth gang is, as Gatti et al. (2005) acknowledge, an organized group of youth and adolescents who rely on the tactics of intimidation and violence to force other people to act in a particular way. Typically, a youth gang will be brought together by a common interest. These common interests range from age, ethnicity, race, gender, class, and belief systems. Therefore, there could be as many reasons for the formation of youth gangs as there are people. As Howell (1998) demonstrates in his seminal work, this fact of youth gangs being formed on the basis of various interests is one of the key difficulties faced by law enforcement officers in their attempts to apprehend members of youth gangs. In essence, it means that youth gangs are naturally unpredictable (Esbensen, 2001). This essay will attempt to interrogate the various elements inherent to youth gangs to get an understanding of their motivations. More specifically, there will be an analysis of the various factors that lead to the formation of youth gangs as well as the discernible symptoms of people who are in youth gangs. This essay will also attempt to determine whether the phenomenon of youth gangs is a function of nature or nurture. Further to this, there shall be a discussion of how youth gangs can be assessed, discerned, diagnosed, and treated. Ultimately, it is hoped that the present essay will function as a good summary of the pertinent issues associated with the phenomenon of youth gangs.
In his article, Howell (1998) maintains that the United States of America has witnessed a rapid growth of youth gangs since the year 1980. In attempting to trace the growth of youth gangs across the country, this author identifies several reasons that influence people to join youth gangs. From his work, one notes that the first reason for joining youth gangs is the search for belonging. Many youth and adolescents find youth gangs appealing because they speak to that innate longing that every individual has of belonging somewhere. In this case, the issue of class differentiation is immaterial (Mendoza, 2014). Finding that their families do not offer the belonging that they have a need for, many youths gravitate towards those places that will accept them for what they are. Even so, Howell (1998) implies that in certain instances, the youth are forced to change fundamental aspects of who they are so that they can get accepted into the mentioned youth gangs. Indeed, it raises the question of whether the people who join the said gangs are forced to compromise on who they are to find acceptance. If this is the case, it will mean that in trying to escape from the constraints of their lives, they find themselves into another constriction of their making. The second reason for the formation of gangs has been said to be linked to aspects of identity-making. More specifically, one notes that during adolescence, many young people are developing a sense of who they are. By forming collectives that champion their belief systems, they create a community where their sense of identity will thrive. As Mendoza (2014) implies, the tumultuous nature of the adolescence years finds respite in other people who are encountering the same challenges. Even so, it is noteworthy that youth gangs are often sites for the engendering and development of negative habits. Most of the youth gangs in the United States of America, for example, exist simply to harass other members of society (Howell, 1998). To protect that which they have appropriated for themselves, they resort to criminal activities. It is for this reason that youth gangs are often linked with the use of drugs, sex work, theft, burglary, and in some instances, murder.
From the above arises a question on function of nature or nurture of the phenomenon of youth gangs. As the work of Huff (1998) suggests, nature refers to those things that are innate in human beings. On the other hand, nurture refers to those instances where a person’s habits and mannerisms are a result of extrinsic influences. In other words, the existence of any demonstrated habits is a result of outside forces. In the case of youth gangs, it can be submitted that it is more a function of nurture than nature. Even though human beings naturally gravitate towards forming collectives that share the same beliefs and characteristics, it does not necessarily mean that these collectives have to become youth gangs. As such, youth gangs develop as a result of one’s environment. In most cases, one joins and takes part in the criminal activities of a youth gang because of very distinct reasons. Mendoza (2014) submits that it is not difficult to recognize youth gangs. Most of them often move from one place to another as a group. There are some youth gangs insisting that its members have to swear an oath or undertake a particular pre-determined activity to get access into the collective. The most important way to assess the activities of a suspected youth gang is to track their activities, albeit in a covert way. It can also be maintained that the surest way of diagnosing youth gangs is by subjecting them – in one way or another – to any institution of authority. Here, an institution of authority is not necessarily the official law enforcement officers. It could be parents, teachers, community leaders, and spiritual leaders. An essential feature of the said diagnosis and eventual treatment is to discover the things that make adolescents join youth gangs. One would also be interested to find out the psychology of the people who take part in youth gangs. Additionally, it would be important for people to demonstrate to others who form youth gangs that their youth gang activities have real consequences for society. This way, there will be a better chance at reformation.
In conclusion, it is submitted that the phenomenon of youth gangs points to deeper issues in society. It will be acknowledged that the distinct way in which a specific society is organized will influence the extent to which youth gangs manifest. Where the schism between the wealthy and the poor is wide, there will be more youth gangs because the youth will be encouraged to take part in criminal activities to fend for themselves. The other important issue to note is that when the members of the youth gangs take the proceeds of crime back to their home, this money is mostly used to meet basic needs. In this way, therefore, one can say that there exists an implied permission from families in as far as youth gangs are concerned. From this discussion, one notes that the best way to combat youth gangs is for the affected communities to consider other methods, which do not necessarily involve state law enforcement authorities.