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Youth Gangs

NCJ Number
Date Published
December 1997
2 pages

This fact sheet by the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) provides an overview of youth gangs, including their characteristics, the proportion of youth who join gangs, gang crime and whether it is increasing, and whether there is a strong correlation between gang drug trafficking and violence.


Although there is no single accepted definition of a youth gang, it is commonly viewed as a self-formed association of peers with the following characteristics: a gang name and recognizable symbols, identifiable leadership, a geographic territory, a regular meeting pattern, and collective involvement in crime. A recent national law enforcement survey indicated that Black youth compose 48 percent of gang members; Hispanic youth, 43 percent; white youth, 5 percent; and Asian youth, 4 percent. Surveys of urban youth samples indicate that 14 - 30 percent of adolescents join gangs at some point. Female involvement in youth gangs is increasing. The United States has experienced a rapid proliferation of youth gangs since 1980. Gang-related killings in major gang cities totaled 633 in 1980, and they have increased dramatically since then, reaching epidemic proportions in some cities. Juvenile gang members commit serious and violent offenses at a rate several times higher than non-gang adolescents. Youth gang members are often involved in drug use, drug trafficking, and associated violence.

Date Published: December 1, 1997