Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

41P Understanding the Suburban Gang Population: Key Characteristics of Members Involved In the Criminal Justice System

Friday, January 13, 2012
Independence F - I (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
R. Anna Hayward, PhD, MSW, Assistant Professor, State University of New York at Stony Brook, Stony Brook, NY
Charlotte Lyn Bright, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland at Baltimore, Baltimore, MD
Background & Purpose: Over the past 10 years gang activity has increased significantly in suburban areas, accompanying a nationwide increase. Latinos now comprise about half of all U. S. gang members (National Youth Gang Center, 2009). Recent increases in immigrant populations from Central and South America raise questions about the relationship between immigration and ethnic gang membership. This research highlights findings from two gang threat assessments, conducted ten years apart in one large suburban jurisdiction (population: 1,518,475). Specific research questions include: (1) Has gang membership increased in the ten-year period between 1999 and 2009? (2) What are the demographic characteristics and service needs of identified gang members? (3) How prevalent are immigrants from Central and South America in gangs? Method: In 1999, probation, parole, and police officers in this jurisdiction began providing data on gang membership. Ten years later, a more comprehensive effort was undertaken to fully assess the extent of gang affiliation in the same county, with an examination of every case (juvenile and adult) in contact with the criminal justice system through law enforcement, probation, or parole during July 2009. Once gang membership was confirmed, additional demographic information was collected either through probation files or direct questioning of probationers and parolees. The present study is an analysis of these administrative data for the 4,110 identified gang members in the county.

Results: Measured as percent of the county's population, gang members represented approximately 2.9% of the population in 2009, up from less than 1% in 1999. The majority (n=3586, 91%) of identified gang members were from the U.S. or Puerto Rico. Most (65%) gang members affiliated with one of the major U.S. street gangs (e.g., Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings) with a smaller percentage affiliating with gangs originating in Latin America (e.g., MS13, 14%), prison gangs (e.g., Neta, 3%), motorcycle gangs (3%), or white supremacist groups (2%). Gang members were largely concentrated in a few neighborhoods; a majority (51%) had not completed secondary school and 75% were unemployed. A sizable minority of individuals indicated past mental health treatment (18%), drug use (41%), and alcohol use (37%). Almost 30% (n=1187) were under the age of 21. For these gang involved youth, only 12% indicated current employment and most lived at home in a one-parent household. Females were a small percent of the gang member population, but were frequently younger gang members.

Implications: The majority of gang members in this suburban area are native born, live in the immediate local area, and are under-employed and minimally educated. These findings suggest that increases in gang related crime may be more related to changing demographics of suburban neighborhoods and economic challenges than increased immigration. Further, the socioeconomic situation of neighborhoods and families appears to contribute to gang involvement among youth. Social workers and other helping professionals should be aware of the relatively high mental health and substance use service needs among gang members.