The Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines youth violence as “harmful behaviors that can start early and continue into young adulthood. The young person can be a victim, an offender, or a witness to the violence.” Youth violence is a severe problem that can have long-lasting harmful effects on victims, their families, and friends. Whether it is a school shooting, street violence, or bullying, there is always something new taking place in the world today. Youth violence has been around for decades and doesn’t seem to be reducing much in any way. There are many factors behind why teens may turn to violence and become more violent as they grow older. Gang involvement is one of the many forms of youth violence and has become a rapidly growing issue in the United States. For many decades, communities in the United States have been troubled by criminal activities, including serious violent crimes committed by youth gangs. The prevalence and seriousness of gang problems have fluctuated over time, with gang activity escalating during some periods and diminishing in others.
The last three decades of the 20th century have been characterized by a huge incline of youth gang problems throughout the Nation. Youth gangs today are found in all regions around the world. They aren’t just found on the streets but inside juvenile detention centers and correctional facilities as well. Gangs primarily consist of males, however, there are also mixed, -, gender gangs. Although their sizes vary, they all seem to have the same basic need – the need to belong to a group that creates a self-identity. Youth gangs typically range from the ages of twelve to twenty-four and consist of people of the same ethnic, racial, and economic background. According to Youth.Gov, “The prevalence of youth under eighteen in gangs is higher in smaller cities and rural communities where gang problems are less established, compared to larger cities.” For the most part, those who decide to join a gang have dropped out of school and have low-skilled jobs, if having one at all. Usually, of low socioeconomic status, these gangs engage in illegal money-making activities and intimidate their neighborhoods and rival gangs with violent crimes and victimization. Studies have shown that as youths enter gangs they tend to become more violent and engage in riskier illegal activities. Violence in gangs is a survival strategy and juvenile justice system intervention often does not cure. Gang members exemplify a high value for group loyalty and sacrifice.
The topic of youth gangs has actually been very interesting to me for quite some time now as gang activity has gotten pretty bad in my hometown. I’ve been living in Kearny, New Jersey for twenty-two years of my life and would never have expected it to be what it is today. It wasn’t until my freshman year of high school that things began to change. Kearny High School in general started to get a reputation for its violence amongst students. Every day there was a new story of people getting into a fight or getting expelled, which is why I was sent to a Catholic school instead.. which must I say was not any better. Although things were changing by the time I entered high school, situations regarding youth gang activity never occurred until very recent years. A story I actually want to share is one that took place in my town not too long ago. On October 9th of 2017, a 14-year-old boy named Angel from my town was reported missing. This shocked the community because things like this never happened. On the 17th of October, his body was found near Newark Penn Station. Angel went to Newark to be initiated into a gang and was beaten to death. In the process of being initiated, some gangs require different tests to see if the individual has what it takes to be in that specific gang. The most common is being jumped or “beat in”, which is the method Angel was required to undergo before being initiated into the gang. The form of initiation typically involves several members attacking the prospective member at the same time. The initiate is expected to fight back while showing no signs of weakness or fear.
Many factors lead the youth to opt for gang life. Some of these socioeconomic, community and interpersonal factors include a lack of guidance and support from parents/guardians, peer influence, and a society that aggressively promotes behavior.
For example, in families where the guardians are rarely present, the child/children may feel deprived of love. The children feel the need to belong somewhere and end up turning towards the wrong things. Joining a gang may help certain individuals fill that void and make them feel complete. I came across a YouTube video titled “Confronting Gang Violence: Why Do Kids Join Gangs?”, which is about a man who at the age of twelve decided to join a gang. Marlin Henderson, tells the story of his life growing up with parents who were addicted to drugs. He discusses how he joined a gang to belong and described being a part of a gang as “being a part of something bigger than you.” Today he is married and is the father he wishes he had growing up; someone that would acknowledge and guide him. Henderson’s wife is who got him through his struggles and led him to live a better life without being involved in gang activity. However, not everyone is that lucky. Not everyone has a person who helps them through their struggles, which is why having guidance from a young age is so important.
The Social Learning Theory analyzes the process of how people acquire new information, attitudes, and forms of behavior. These forms of behavior can be learned from a variety of sources including family, friends, community, and even the media. The possibility of a behavior presenting itself will depend on the amount of reinforcement it receives and the value that the individual associates with it. The Social Learning Theory has been applied to a wide variety of criminal, delinquent, and deviant behavior. Focusing on just one of the ways that the morals of the youth are bent so that gang violence becomes more acceptable is the influence of television, social media, and even in video games. Nowadays, a child spends more time with some sort of device in front of their face whether it is a smartphone, iPad, or the tv. Children learn and pick up off of what they see on these devices, where it is normalized. Instead of spending their time watching something that is educational and that will benefit them in the years to come, they are being brainwashed by the wrong ideas. Many shows on tv today are extremely violent and the way a child portrays these messages could lead to violent behavior later on in life.
In 2018, members of the Trinitarios were involved in the slaying of a young 15-year-old boy in the Bronx. Lesandro Guzman-Feliz was dragged from inside a bodega and stabbed to death. After he was murdered, the Trinitarios acknowledged that Lesandro was actually not the person they were targeting, they had mistaken him for another person. The gang members in fact were after a boy the same age who looked similar to Guzman-Feliz for videotaping sexual acts he was having with the daughter of a gang member. On June 25th, authorities located and arrested just a few Trinitarios members involved in the death of Guzman-Feliz. The men were charged with murder, manslaughter, and other felonies. The youngest male involved was only 18 years old and had been a part of the gang for years. I found out about this horrible tragedy just a day after it took place while I was in New York dropping my cousin off. We noticed that the streets were blocked off by cops and we spotted a large crowd of people surrounding a corner store. Us being nosey, stupid 21-year-olds, we decided to get out of the car and see what was going on. We soon became familiar with the fact that we were standing at the candle lighting and memorial for Junior. Instant chills traveled throughout my entire body. It was crazy to think we were standing right in front of where the brutal slaying of a young innocent teenage boy had taken place. That night is something I will never forget. For weeks after, the story was all over the news and it was just crazy to think that stuff like this happens every single day.
A balance of prevention, intervention, and suppression strategies are important for success in any community out there involving gang activity. Prevention program strategies help reduce the number of youth who join gangs. Intervention programs provide services for the youth who are already actively involved in gangs, trying to remove them from the gangs. Intervention plays a huge part in reducing gang activity and is not focused on enough. Law enforcement suppression strategies help rehabilitate the most violent gangs and older, criminally active gang members. By taking all of these strategies and putting them to use we can help eliminate a huge portion of violent crime that is carried out by gang members. Actively addressing these factors is extremely important during the adolescent years, which is typically when violence begins to increase. According to our powerpoints, “Most of these reasons are due to the momentous physical and social changes that children undergo during this period.” These three strategies, however, are not enough to completely solve and put an end to the youth gang issues in the United States.
Youth gang-related crime has been growing for years, but little data exists about the extent of crimes committed by gang members. According to the Justice.gov website, “Gang violence has risen sharply, especially in large cities. Youth gangs are becoming more violent and increasingly serve as a way for members to engage in illegal money-making activities, such as drug and firearms trafficking.” Exactly how much it has risen in past years is hard to determine, especially since the movement to abolish gang databases has taken place. In an article written on GCN.com in 2018 by David Pyrooz and James Densley, they discuss the four main arguments against gang databases. The first being that gang membership is not measured accurately, it is said to be overcounted. Second, people of color are overrepresented in gang lists, giving the perception of discrimination. Thirdly, the databases are often kept a secret and this later results in due-process problems. Lastly, being named in a gang database can lead to serious consequences. “Improving data could be done with stricter, more consistent rules for who is a gang member and who isn’t. The reports should undergo regular audits. Databases could also better reflect the fact that gang membership is a temporary status and even the “worst of the worst” is not beyond redemption.” (Pyrooz, Densley; 3) Gang data is important public safety information as it helps officials solve gang-related crimes. Eliminating gang databases would make it even more complicated for law enforcement to reduce violence in communities. If used in the correct ways, gang databases can be the solution to violent crime.
According to our PowerPoint slides, “Approximately one million gang members (belonging to more than 20,000 different gangs) are criminally active in the United States; the majority of these are youth under 24.” The consequences of gangs and their burden in our communities have been significant for many years now showing no signs of subsiding anytime soon. Can we stop gang violence? There are a few solutions, like the ones I’ve discussed, to reduce crimes committed by the youth. It is up to us to take the initiative in our communities to make a change. Statistics have shown that school-based programs and community-based prevention programs help with minimizing gang involvement. I believe the most important factor in putting a stop to gang violence would be effective parenting from early on from childhood to adolescence. Gangs are something that needs to be dealt with because if not they are only going to get worse if steps are not taken. Intervention needs to be focused on more than ever. It is never too late to make a change in your community.
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