U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Youth Gangs and Definitional Issues: When is a Gang a Gang, and Why Does it Matter?

NCJ Number
Crime and Delinquency Volume: 47 Issue: 1 Dated: January 2001 Pages: 105-130
Date Published
January 2001
26 pages

This study used information from approximately 5,935 students in middle schools in 11 cities in 11 States to examine the juvenile gang phenomenon, using 5 increasingly restrictive definitions of gang membership.


The study resulted from recognition that the recent increase in gang research has highlighted the importance of consistent definition for gang affiliation and gang-related crime. Definitional questions have assumed greater significance in the wake of broad-ranging prevention and intervention strategies. The least restrictive definition used in this study included all youth who claimed gang membership at some point in time. The most restrictive definition included only those youths who were current core gang members who indicated that their gang had some degree of organizational structure and whose members were involved in illegal activities. The analysis compared gang and nongang youths with respect to demographic characteristics, theoretical factors, and levels of self-reported crime and considered the theoretical and policy implications of shifting definitions of gang membership. Data collection took place in the spring of 1995. Results revealed that 17 percent reported being a gang member at some point in time, 9 percent reported current gang membership, 8 percent were delinquent gang members, slightly less than 5 percent were organized gang members, and only 2 percent were core gang members. Results indicated that the magnitude of the gang problem varied substantially by definition. Findings also indicated the need for caution regarding the police practice of targeting youth who claimed gang affiliation and suggested that civil injunctions, anti-loitering statutes, and sentence enhancements aimed at gang members may be too encompassing of their targeted audience. Tables, notes, and 63 references (Author abstract modified)

Date Published: January 1, 2001