Gangs as Institutions and Their Impact on Public Policy

James H. Noonan, Federal Bureau of Investigation
James A. Woods, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Robert D. Brown, University of Mississippi

Research concerning gangs that has resulted in state criminal justice policy has been based on differential association theory, social learning theory, and social control theory. This has resulted in policies that address individual-level deviance. This research has ignored treating gangs as a group or organization with its own set of characteristics, behaviors, and pathologies. We argue that proliferation of gangs in the U.S. since the 1980s has occurred not because of the characteristics of individual members but because the gang itself has become institutionalized. Like other social institutions, the proliferation of gangs is dependant upon social factors and characteristics and not the participation of individual members. A better explanation may come from Shaw and McKay's social disorganization theory which states that communities with high rates of delinquency, and specifically group delinquency, are occupied by those segments of the population whose position is most disadvantageous in relation to the distribution of economic, social, and cultural values. Therefore our hypothesis is that gang activity is dependant on social factors and those counties with abnormal social factors such as abnormally high unemployment and single female headed households will also show higher levels of gang activity. To test this hypothesis we will examine and compare county level data from the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS), the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), and the National Youth Gang Survey (NYGS) to give an understanding of gang proliferation and activity. The General Social Survey (GSS) and Census data will be the base for determining county level independent variables which will be combined to create scales of economic, social, and cultural factors.

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Updated 05/20/2006