The origin of the word ‘gang’:
Old English, from Old Norse gangr, ganga ‘gait, course, going’, of Germanic origin; related to gang. The original meaning was ‘going, a journey’, later in Middle English ‘a way’, also ‘set of things or people which go together’.(1)
What is a gang?
According to the Oxford Dictionary a gang is ‘a group of young people involved in petty crime or violence.'(1)
Gangs in the United States (2013)
In the United States, there are an estimated 29,000 gangs and nearly 750,000 members; 260,000 of those are adolescents. Adolescents make up 30–40% of these members highlighting that many members continue involvement into adulthood.
46% of members are Hispanic or Latino, 35% Black or African Americans, 11% White and the remaining 7% are of mixed races/ethnicities. In communities where gang activity is new, more members are White. Nearly 10% of gang members are female.
Gang involvement, gang proliferation and gang violence have become common features of 21st Century America.
There are approximately 100,000 adolescents detained in the criminal justice system in the United States. Gang members share many of the features of “at risk” or juvenile justice involved youth who deny gang membership. These youth have been characterized as frequently poor, with poor academic involvement and performance. They have been described as having an early onset of substance use, having an affiliation with aggressive peers in early adolescence, and inconsistently residing in disadvantaged communities.
Researchers have posited when there is a lack of environmental prosocial supports (i.e., home, school, and community), risk factors such as low self-esteem, impulsivity, risk-seeking and the use of cognitive strategies that justify and rationalize harmful behaviors towards others predispose youth to illegal activity and gang involvement.
Their research findings supported previous work and found cognitive differences were found with respect to assigning ‘blame’ for criminal acts. Youth who were either peripherally involved with gangs or gang members were more likely to blame either superiors (peripheral) or victims (gang member) for the crime in comparison to the non-gang member.
Youth gang members as a whole displayed a greater level of anti-authority than either peripheral youth or non-gang members. Gang-affiliated youth are often outside the bounds of the traditional mental health services and have particular needs. Because of the increased risk to exposure to violence, these youth have increased rates of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
There are high levels of mental health disorders within the juvenile detention population as a whole, estimated to affect between 40–70%, including psychotic disorders, mood disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, disruptive behavior disorders, and substance use disorders.