Gangs: The Final Frontier

Although specific legal and operational definitions of what constitutes a “gang” have varied somewhat over time and across different jurisdictions, the National Gang Center and the National Institute of Justice have identified and summarized a set of common key indicators. Gangs are comprised of a meaningful association of at least three individuals who adopt a shared identity that can be used for organization and intimidation and which is manifested by a group name, sign, symbol, tattoo, clothing color, and/or hairstyle. Gangs are organized around an express goal of engaging in criminal activity, and they rely on violence and coercion to advance this goal; gang members utilize criminal activity in part to augment or maintain the status and resources of the gang. Gangs also might involve rules for membership, a leadership structure, and control over specified territory or “turf.” The Eurogang project, a large study in Europe examining the nature and origins of youth gang involvement, operationalized “street gangs” as any “durable, street-oriented youth group whose involvement in illegal activity is part of its group identity” (Esebensen & Maxson, 2012, p. 6 ). Gang members have been defined as individuals who acknowledge current gang membership, as well as individuals who maintain some form of behavioral or social tie to gangs (Boxer, Veysey et al., 2015).

Gangs, including youth gangs, have been a persistent and strikingly common problem in society for hundreds of years thanks to the general crime, mayhem, and violence they produce (Howell & Moore, 2010). The most recent estimates available indicate that gangs are active and known to law enforcement in about 30 percent of all jurisdictions in the U.S., spanning urban, suburban, and rural communities. About 20 percent of students attending public middle and high schools in the U.S. report gang presence in their schools. Despite their prevalence, gangs also happen to be on the “final frontier” of youth violence prevention and intervention. A number of evidence-based models exist for helping aggressive youth generally, including juvenile offenders. However, we have yet to see a specific “best practice” approach for helping youth whose aggression, antisocial behavior, and violence emanate from their entrenchment in gang activity.

This is a critical gap in the field given that youth who are involved in gang activity represent a particularly high-risk population. Youth involved in gangs exhibit very high levels of violent and nonviolent antisocial behavior relative to their peers who are not in gangs, and even in comparison to other youth who are involved in antisocial behavior but not in gangs (Barnes, Beaver, & Miller, 2010; Boxer et al., 2015; Dishion, Véronneau, & Myers, 2010; Howell & Egley, 2005). Gang-involved youth also tend to encounter levels of personal and ecological risk substantially higher and more broadly based than do typical antisocial youth who are not gang-involved (Barnes et al., 2010; Boxer et al., 2015). 

Thus, given the behavioral and risk factor profiles associated with gang involvement, we might say that gang-involved youth inhabit the most severe end of a spectrum of antisocial, aggressive behavior where offenses perpetrated are most serious (Loeber & Stouthamer-Loeber, 1998) and where background risk experiences are most intense (Dodge & Pettit, 2003). It seems possible that in some cases gang-involved youth might be viewed as “cool” or “tough” by their peers and thus perhaps maintain relatively high social status (Rodkin, Farmer, Pearl, & Van Acker, 2000). But the more plausible general scenario is that these youth have been rejected by the mainstream peer group (Patterson, DeBaryshe, & Ramsey, 1989), who likely view them as aggressive by nature and unlikely to change for the better (Boxer & Tisak, 2005). Developmental studies show quite clearly that aggressive youth tend primarily if not exclusively to have aggressive friends (e.g., Espelage, Holt, & Henkel, 2003), who promote their engagement in increasingly deviant and violent behavior (Dishion et al., 2010), potentially stigmatizing them further.

Helping gang-involved youth is a pressing challenge in the broad fields of mental health and juvenile justice. Despite the existence of several “best practice,” evidence-based approaches to helping juvenile offenders generally (Henggeler & Schoenwald, 2011; Hoge, Guerra, & Boxer, 2008), no single approach has been held up as efficacious or even advanced as effective for reducing problem behavior or otherwise improving functioning for gang-involved youth (Boxer & Goldstein, 2012). However, major strides have been made in delineating the nature of programming that might be effective in this population. For example, my team has published studies suggesting that the well-established, empirically validated Multisystemic Therapy (MST; Henggeler et al., 2009) program might be effective for gang-involved youth. In one study, youth in MST whose caregivers identified gang involvement as a key referral problem for treatment were significantly more likely to fail out of treatment than were those for whom gang involvement was not a referral problem (Boxer, 2011). Still, about 60 percent of youth who entered MST with gang problems were treated successfully. We replicated these basic findings in a second study, of youth referred by the justice system for MST (Boxer, Kubik et al., 2015). We observed that gang-involved youth fail out of MST more frequently than do youth who are not gang-involved, but a sizeable proportion still do succeed. Importantly, a follow-up analysis (Boxer et al., 2016) found that, 12 months post-treatment, there were no differences between gang and nongang youth in terms of recidivism!

Research on the development, prevention, and treatment of aggression typically has proceeded in silos different from research on the nature and management of youth gangs, youth gang activity, and youth gang members. But there are good theoretical and empirical reasons to approach the study of youth gang involvement from the broad developmental perspective typically applied to aggressive behavior (Boxer, 2014; Brown et al., 2014), and this sort of research is slowly but surely increasing. 

Developmentally informed research on youth gangs would represent a significant new direction for theory building related to understanding the emergence and maintenance of serious aggression. But at the same time, this line of inquiry is also likely to lead to a better understanding of how to help youth gang members given that the best interventions rest on strong theoretical frameworks (Boxer & Dubow, 2002). Aggression researchers, already familiar with the cross-disciplinary nature of inquiry into the origins and expression of aggressive behavior in all its forms, should be at the leading edge of this work.

Paul Boxer, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center on Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice at Rutgers University-Newark.

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Boxer, P. (2014). Youth gangs and adolescent development: New findings, new directions, and new challenges. (Introduction to the special section.) Journal of Research on Adolescence, 24, 201-203.

Boxer, P., Veysey, B., Ostermann, M., & Kubik, J. (2015). Measuring gang involvement in a justice-referred sample of youth in treatment. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 1, 41-59.

Boxer, P., Kubik, J., Ostermann, M., & Veysey, B. (2015). Gang Involvement Moderates the Effectiveness of Evidence-Based Intervention for Justice-Involved Youth. Children and Youth Services Review, 52, 26-33.

Boxer, P., Docherty, M., Ostermann, M., Kubik, J., & Veysey, B. (In press). Effectiveness of Multisystemic Therapy for gang-involved youth offenders: One-year follow-up analysis of recidivism outcomes. Children & Youth Services Review.

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Rodkin, P.C., Farmer, T.W., Pearl, R., & Van Acker, R. (2000). Heterogeneity of popular boys: Antisocial and prosocial configurations. Developmental Psychology, 36, 14–24.