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US Marshals Arrest Suspected Gang Member

Photo by U.S. Marshals Service | flickr creative commons

One of the important implications of recent developments is the fact that today’s gangs have become in one important way different from the gangs of years ago. For those groups, the gang was a transitory experience of recent immigrant groups. Most members eventually matured out of the gangs and settled down to jobs and families.

Recent studies indicate that this is no longer the case. More and more gang members remain within the gang well into their adult years, as there are fewer opportunities available to them in terms of well-paying jobs. The most recent National Gang Center survey found that during the last 10 years of the survey, law-enforcement agencies reported that increasing numbers of gang members were adults. Whereas in 1996 about half were adults, in 2006 about two-thirds were adults. This distribution varied by size of the city: larger urban areas had a greater proportion of adult gang members, while juvenile gang members were more prevalent in smaller areas.

This has become especially true for those gang members who were sentenced to prison during the crackdown in the 1980s and who have recently been released. Part of an upsurge in gang-related homicides in Los Angeles during the late 1990s and early 2000s, for example, was attributed in part to gang members getting out of prison (following the passage of get tough legislation in the 1980s) and facing worse social conditions in their neighborhoods than when they were sentenced. Similar results have been found in other cities throughout the past decade.

In short, gangs are part of an underclass of marginalized minority youth. Virtually all of the research within the past 100 years has documented this (an excellent summary is found in a book by James Diego Vigil). During a follow-up study of the original 47 gang founders in Milwaukee, John Hagedorn found that over 80 percent of them were still involved in the gang although they were in their mid-20s, a time when most have typically matured out of the gang.