Examining The Historical Issues Of Gangs Criminology Essay


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Gangs are certainly not new in the historical sense. 19th century American and British teen gangs have been extensively studied, and even popularized in movies like Gangs of New York. In fact, who can forget the famous musical rendition of Oliver Twist, a youth gang led by a nefarious criminal; or even the gangs that wreaked havoc in the Robin Hood tales?

What may not be generally well known, however, is that even Saint Augustine, over 1,600 years ago, referenced the perils of adolescent gangs in his Confessions; including his own involvement? In fact, during the middle ages, gangs were so prevalent in the burgeoning urban areas that even Chaucer wrote about them in his Canterbury Tales. Historians generally agree that gang activity, or what we would term groups engaged in criminal activity, were prevalent as long as society has been organized. What must also be understood, though, is that when lifespans were generally under 35 for many, a "teen" gang might consist of youth from 8-16 or even younger. Too, youth and childhood were treated quite differently prior to the 19th and 20th centuries - these gangs and their activities were considered in the same way as that of adults, and punished accordingly. Most scholarship finds that reasons for gang activity have been historically economic. They typically involved a number of marginalized adolescents who were unable to take advantage of what little educational opportunities that were available; and usually pressed towards the edge of society to the point that it was either starve or join a gang for protection - or at the very least, to eat and have a safer place to (Franzese, Covey and Menard, 2006, 109-10).

In the United States teen gangs have a rather long and complex history, becoming a tangible social problem during and after the Reconstruction Era. During the early 20th century, the most famous (and publicized in the popular press) gangs were the African-American gangs of the Eastern ghetto areas during the early 1910s. Historians and early sociologists argued that this increasing gang activity was directly related to a decrease in adult role models, schooling, and a lack of appropriate child rearing practices in the poorer areas of the country. This view tended towards the antipathy of the time. White children, usually seen as having more stability in family life and were forced by culture into compulsory education had greater opportunities to actualize. If they turned to crime, it was usually of a more sophisticated and less violent nature. Black or minority children, however, congregated in gangs in order to survive the difficulties of their conditions; seemingly preying upon others as a form of vocation. Of course, this was a false viewpoint; there were a number of immigrant children who were not Black who were part of gangs and criminal activity; all the way from the 1800s on (Adamson, 2000).

The Concept of Childhood and Adolescence in America - The socio-cultural history surrounding gang behavior is inexorably tied in with the way the process of youth violence, acculturation, and disaffected youth. Because of this, it is important to first understand how the paradigm has evolved over the centuries. The concept of childhood is really quite a modern idea. Prior to the 18th century, for instance, children were widely seen as "little adults," dressed in adult clothing just of a smaller size. Economic and social class was everything to the conception of what a child could do - the further down the economic ladder, the quicker one had to grow up. Childhood, however, as the 18th and 19th centuries evolved, became a marketable category when social and cultural issues changed to allow a new market for service such as schools, playgrounds, parks, toys, and new lines of clothing. The irony of this era is, however, that sociologists see the origins of the source of the modern institution of childhood evolving during this time; along with the increase in child labor - which amounted to little more than slavery. It was, though, this conception of what childhood should be that led religious and social activists (including Charles Dickens), and to introduce the Factory Acts of 1802-1878 in Britain which had their immediate counterparts in America - continually limiting how children could be used (Cunningham, 1995, 85-92, 106-14). Yet there was this seed of contradiction in the post-Civil War world. In upper and wealthier middle class families children were raised by servants or nannies; often women brought in from the lower classes as workers in the households. Wealthier children were often sent to boarding school, and thus parents were parted from their children until late adolescence. Children in poorer families, even under the best of circumstances had to help with household expenses. Until mandatory school became a fact (late 1800s), there was not much of a childhood playtime once the child was old enough to walk, talk, and communicate cogently. This became the working paradigm for gang activitity that historical sociologists saw as one of the reasons adolescent gangs continue to be a social problem in the 20th and into the 21st centuries (Unsworth, 2004, 28-30).

Criminological Basis for Gang Activity- As notes, gangs, and gangland violence is not something endemic to conemporary societies. In most countries, gang violence patterns the sociological development of society and the evolution of criminal activity - as criminal activity becomes more sophisticated, so do gang activities. While most sociological theories tie gang behavior to youth violence, one can trace a number of changes in gang violence to the way organized crime has evolved in the United States. At the beginning of the 20th century, for instance, gangs were ofen based around ethnic boundaries and confined within ethnic neighborhoods. These early gangs tended to focus on non-violent, or human weakness crimed (e.g. prostitition, gambling, non taxable cigarettes and alchohol). Once gambling because legal in Nevada, much of the organized crime dealing with gambling moved to Las Vegas, while still retaining some ties to the major metropolitcan areas. As tastes changed, so the the criminological focus of gangs; from liquor to drugs, from drugs to social an political control back focusing on ethnic boundaries (e.g. Asian, Latino, etc.) (Jackson and McBridge, 2000).

There are three major theories regarding the understanding of gang development , membership, and criminal behavior: Merton's "Strain Theory," Sutherland's "Differential Association Theory," and Cohen's "Subculture of Deliquency Theory." These theoretical paradigms tend towards male gangs, and emphasize that the reason individuals are attracted to gang behavior is part of accultruation. That form of acculturation then forms one of the templates within society as a whole (Barfield-Cottledge, 2009).

Merton's Strain Theory - First developed in 1938, and then annotated through the mid-1990s, this theory defines an approach that rejcts the roots of crime embedded within the slums of American urban life and instead as part of the "American Dream," there is structurally induced strain the places implicit pressure on everyone to never be satisfied with their lot in life. This widespread pining for success has more consequences than simply the actualization of the individual - it promostes devient behavior that places undue pressure on the lower classes to succeed but places inordinant blocks on them through traditional means (education, corporations, family connections, etc.). Instead, this view holds that such strain exists at all levels that individuals that are marginalized often have little choice in modeling behaviors for success other than criminal gangs (Lilly, Ball and Cullen, 2011, 63-5).

Sutherland's Differential Association Theory - For Sutherland, gang and criminal activity are part of a certain set of cultural values that are transmitted from one generation to the next simply as part of the "way things are," without any deep moralization or ethical analysis between those generations. Gang activity is a learning process; especailly in the inner-city areas. Individuals in that segment of society tend to come into contact with two basic ideas: adapting of the system and violation of the system. It is the violation of the system, however, that provides a quicker path towards actualization based on the success patterns of that culture. It takes less time, for instance, to become involved in illicit activities than to study for a college degree, or even to graduate from High School with grades sufficient to get into an appropriate college. In fact, this theory holds that it is the criminal behavior that binds many groups together; can be very complex and multi-layered, and certainal provides a rationale and structure of living within that environment (Ibid., 48).

Cohen's Subculture of Deliquency Theory- Finally, Albert Cohen finds that it is inate culture that actually defines aberant behavior - and that within modern society (meaning complex hierarchical structures) , particularly in the post-World War II generation, deliquent behavior by lower class, or disaffected youth, is part of their own sociolazation practices that become their own subculture that continues to promulgate. This becomes further complex as economic ties blur between the poor and middle classes and the expectations each has about the definition of materialistic success. By belonging to a subculture, however, one can feel part of something larger, insultated a bit from the criticisms and unattainable messages of the upper middle class, and certainly a way to belong and feel important with one's own environment (Siegel and Welsh, 2009, 130-1).

Contemporary Urban Issues- In the United States, the National Gang Center estimates that there are almost 800,000 active street gang members, most concentrated in Los Angeles County and the greater Chicago area. Demographically, Hispanics acocunt for almost 50 percent of gang members, African Americans 30 percent, Caucasians 13 percent, and Asians 6 percent (Carlie, 2002). Unfortunately, Native American communities are also being overrun by gang violence and drug trafficking. Most tribal communities, in fact, have signifant gang activity; contributing also to the continued economic downturn of that community (Eckholm, 2009). The problem of gangs is global in scope, especially in urban areas. There are approximately, 1,000 known gangs operating in the United Kindgon; 100,000 member of Mexican gang; 300,000 members of Russian Gangs; almost 100,000 member in Japan's Yakuza; double that for China's Triad, and yet a paltry (in comparison) 25,000 members of the Sicialan Mafia, in both Italy and the United States (Adamoli, Di Nicola, Savona and Zoffi, 1998).

Structurally, most scholars segment gangs into three types: street, prison, and criminal. Street gangs are individuals with similar backgrounds and motivations who pool resources together because it is often the only way they see out ot their economic situation or their own abiolity to succeed. These groups tend to act collectively to achieve specific purposes, typically that of enrichment through illegal actions (Covey, 2010). Prison gangs are groups that band together for either mutual protection of affiliation while incarcerated or confined. Often, prison gangs have seveal affiliates in different prisons so that members can remain tied to an organization throughout their criminal career. These groups, however, are not just tied to prison, new research shows that a number manage and organize both activity inside and outside the prison walls. Many prison gangs are based on ethnicity or a cohension of ideologies (e.g. skinheads, anarchists, etc.) (Fleisher, 2006). Criminal gangs that function both inside and outside prioson institutions (Mexican Mafia, Aryan Nation, etc.) is usually structured in a way that they term mutually beneficial to the growth of their organization. In fact, because of many criminals that are habitual visitos to the major institutions, a rather sophisticated communications and indoctribation system occurs with many of these gangs (Pappas, 2001).

Trends in gang related activity are down from the late 1980s and early 1990s, as are the total number of gang members in the United States. However much good news that is, though, gang members, particularly youth gang members, still committ a disproportionately higher number of the overall offenses committed by juveniles, and and even larger proportion of those that are violent in nature (Ibid). One of the more interesting trends, though, is that despite gang-related activity being something that has always existed in society, the increase in gang activity shown by the media coupled with the extreme violent nature of that activity, alarmed more Americans who now demanded more vigilance from law enforcement, and turned almost angrily to social scientists to try to understand the nature of gang activity (Monti, 1993). We certainly know when an issue has permeated the psyche of America to a large degree when we note the number of gang-related themes that appear in poplar culture via television and movies; many bringing the serious and frustrating nature of the problem into a middle-class relaity like never before. This is also exacerbated in much of the street and rap music that sometimes advocates violent behavior, and most certainly focuses on a level of hatred and hopelessness that is almost palpable (Spergel, 1995, 130-5).

One of the newer trends in gang activity in American society is that of the penetration of gangs into the U.S. Miliary; member often using their military knowledge and training to committ or manage criminal activity. A 2009 FBI paper on gang activity found that the military's screening for gang membership is ineffective and that there are documented situations in which gang members obtained military grade weapons and technology for use in gangland activities. According to this report, "gangs are morphing, multiplying, and migrating - entrenching themselves not just in the inner city," but in suburbs and rural communities, responsible for up to 80 percent of all crime (The Gang Threat - Get Educated, 2009).

Potential Solutions to Gang Problems- Much of the literature fousing on gang related activities focuses on two areas: gun control and punishment. Advocates of gun control believe that if there is a greater reduction in the availability of weapons there will be a resulting decrease in the ability for gangs to inflict violence on society. Gangs certainly do not announce their intentions to the local police, and if weapons are decreased, police protection will be less necessary (Suter, 1995). While this view may seem logical, it fails to address than guns are but the tool used, not the underlying cause of the issue - almost as if removing breakables from toddler's reach will prevent them from doing damage.

A second major theme involves increasing police presence and tougher criminal prosecution for gang violence. This view holds that the greater the vigalence, the more prevention occurs. Within the school system, this means putting rules in place that prohibit wearing gang colors, clothing, or symbols; removing known gang members from the system if they are unable or unwilling to become part of mainstream education, to assign more police during public or areas/times in which gang activity is predominant, and provide more serious punishment for convicted gang member. In a way, though, this is an indirect response to gang activity - and certainly, we note that placing more gang members into the prison system is clearly not a deterrant, and may even be the cause of an increase in certain types of gang activity. In fact, in modern society, it would be impossible to have enough police protection to effectively end gang violence without adopting a totalitarian state. Most communities want peace and security, but are simply not able to fund enough police to provide a high enough level of protection as gang activity increases (Katz and Webb, 2003).

Instead, combining a criminological and sociological perspective, one must ask the seminal question: why do gangs exist and what benefits do they provide. Certainly there are a number of reasons for this in modern society: increased access to drugs and weapons, poverty, racial divisions, lack of parental control, lack of employment and recreational activities, excessive sex and violence in the media, and a sense of hopelessness from many disenfranchised youth. Gang activitiy starts with youth - there are benefits to being a part of a gang: companionship, protection, fast and easy money, relief of frustration with society, a greater sense of power, and a way to increase self-esteem within a local community. The simple fact is that when benefits of being in a gang outweigh the risks, it is likely there will be an increase in gang membership (Goode, 2008).

It remains difficult, however, for much of middle class society to see that prevention programs that have upfront costs, actually save money in the long term (medical intervention costs, prosecution, increased violence, incarceration, etc.). Because these costs are buried in the system it is often difficult to see that for every $100 spent on prevention, several thousand dollars are saved from the results of gang activity. These prevention tactics are, like any prevention program, not a quick-fix or panacea. Instead, they are a slow but effective way of mitigating a problem at the source. Instead of prosecuting gang members, why not provide support for vitims; assimilate gang-oriented students into the mainstream school culture; encourage parental involvment; remove graffiti immediately and encourage pride in the school and community; provide sports, drama, music and regreational activities at all levels of school and community affairs; add gang and drug prevention into the core curriculum at school; set up professional agencies to help with gang activities; work with the media to send the message that gang behavior is not a sensational way to glean attention; provide witness protection programs; and fund specific gang task forces that remove the most hardened criminals and their influence (Gangs in America, 1993). The overall solution, then, is to provide tangible alternatives to gang activity and funding ways to help those at risk avoid the temptation to join and participate in gang activity. In addition to the reduction of criminal activity, this type of program implementation will result in better and more productive citizens.

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