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The Folk Devil Reacts: Gangs and Moral Panic

NCJ Number
Criminal Justice Review Volume: 28 Issue: 1 Dated: Spring 2003 Pages: 26-46
Jenna L. St. Cyr
Date Published
21 pages
This article discusses the moral panic created by the gang problem and how this affects gang members.
The basic premise surrounding a moral panic is that the concern for a deviant behavior or deviant group is disproportionate to the immediate threat posed. This study focused on the effect that the moral panic itself may have on the group, or individual, to whom it is directed. A survey was conducted on gang-involved and non-gang-involved youth, police officers, and members of a local task force about their perceptions of the gang problems in the city of St. Louis, MO. The hypothesis is that a moral panic has spread to the targeted individuals and communities and thus drawn moral boundaries. The findings suggest that gang members identify with the same folk devil that public and social control agents have characterized. A moral boundary in gang-impacted communities has been created, and no one wants to identify with the folk devil, including the gang members themselves. The findings of the juvenile and adult groups support the general requirements of a moral panic, including concern, hostility, consensus, and disproportionality. Volatility was hard to capture with the available measures. The ranking of gangs and drugs as the two most serious problems facing young people by both groups of youth is representative of concern. That both groups of youth agreed about the magnitude of gang activity is indicative of consensus. The over-identification of the scenarios as gang-related is a close fit to the exaggeration requirement of disproportionality. The degree to which they think that the most violent activities are important to gang members shows that, to both groups of youth, gangs are also threatening and therefore hostile. When significant differences are apparent between the gang youth and the police, the gang youth were more likely to estimate higher numbers or to over-identify with gang characteristics. The creation of moral panic over gangs in this country has succeeded in creating a clear moral boundary, creating more division in already disorganized communities. 2 footnotes, 6 tables, 38 references, appendix