Article Bank # A-82
Understanding “Gang” Offenses
By CESSIE ALFONSO
To be an effective advocate for those charged with “gang”-related crimes, defenders, sentencing advocates, mitigation specialists and other professionals need to know what constitutes a gang.
The stakes can be quite high, such as when racketeering laws are used against gang members. Prosecutors have other novel tools at their disposal as well: a Chicago ordinance banning loitering by apparent street gang members has been accepted for review by the U.S. Supreme Court this term.
The term “gang” carries many meanings and evokes many images. There is no consensus on the definition of a gang, but there is some agreement on the basic elements. Maxon and Klein developed three criteria for defining a street gang.
Community recognition of the group.
The group”s recognition of itself as a distinct group of adolescents or young adults.
The group’s involvement in enough illegal activities to get a consistent negative response from law enforcement and neighborhood residents.
Once considered largely an urban phenomenon, gangs have increasingly emerged in smaller communities, presenting a challenge that severely strains local resources and the courts.
Gangs tend to be local, transitory and fluid in nature. Even large-scale gangs with reputed nationwide networks attract local youth and take advantage of local opportunities to carry out their gang activities. They tend to be rooted in their neighborhoods. For their members, gangs represent a rite of passage, and provide a sense of family. For some, the gang provides economic opportunity.
Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin”s typology of gangs is the concept of differential opportunity. According to this concept, individuals become involved in gang life and crime simply because legitimate means of success are unavailable to them. Cloward and Ohlin conclude that young people are likely to join one of three types of gangs – criminal, conflict, or retreatist.
Criminal gangs are likely to exist in stable low-income areas where there are close relationships between adolescent and adult gang members.
Conflict gangs develop in communities with dilapidated conditions and transient populations. When criminal opportunities do not conflict, gangs fight to gain social status and protect their integrity and honor.
Retreatist gangs do not possess the skills to be considered criminal gangs. They retreat into a role on the fringe of society that usually involves heavy drug use and withdrawal from social interaction.
Taylor (1990) groups gangs into three categories: corporate, territorial, and scavenger.
Corporate gangs focus their attention on making money. There is a clearly defined division of labor, and members” criminal activities are committed almost exclusively for profit.
Territorial gangs focus on possession of turf, and gang members are quick to use violence to secure or protect what belongs to the gang. While there is a level of organization in these gangs – including clearly defined leaders and particular objectives and goals of the gang – it is less refined than in corporate gangs.
Scavenger gangs have very little organizational structure, and gang members are motivated by a need to belong to a group. Their crimes are usually impulsive and often senseless. There are objectives or goals for the gang, and the gang members tend to be low achievers who are prone to violent and erratic behavior.
Young people appear to join gangs for many reasons, such as protection, prestige, or the need for positive reinforcement lacking in their home or school. Some may be motivated by peer pressure, a lack of alternatives, or the desire or need for money. Others may yearn for a substitute family, and for identity or recognition. They may find nothing more seductive than the acceptance and affection of a group of peers, The susceptibility to joining a gang increases for treated with indifference – or worse – at home.
Gang members themselves have indicated in interviews with local youth services workers that their reasons for gang membership include:
· too much unstructured and unsupervised time;
· lack of religion, values, or ethics – including work ethic – within the home;
· lack of education or lack of success in school; and
· strength in numbers while committing a crime.
Although there are still many unanswered questions about community factors in gang formation, research suggests that gangs emerge in communities that are struggling with problems of poverty, racism, and demographic changes. They emerge where residents are excluded from traditional institutions of social support, and where youth have few prospects for successful participation in conventional educational and economic activities (Conly, 1993).
Different Gang Cultures
An assessment of the gang problem in 45 cities by the National Youth Gang Suppression and Intervention Program of the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) (Spergel, Chance. and Curry, 1990) found several factors intrinsic to gang membership. They included social disorganization or failures of basic local institutions such as family, schools, and employment; poverty or lack of social opportunities; racism; and particular cultural traditions. Also included: opportunities to commit crime, fragmented policy and programmatic approaches by criminal justice and social service agencies, and an existing gang culture in the community.
The same study, also found that influences contributing to gang membership seem to differ among specific ethnic and racial groups. For example, racism and poverty appear to be particularly potent factors in the development of drug-involved gang problems in certain African-American communities – as is the case with the Bloods and the Crips. Population movement and cultural traditions may be more important to the growth of gangs in Hispanic communities.
The Latin Kings is a gang that was created by older Latino men who wanted to make a positive contribution to the community and enhance the image of Latinos. As young Latino men became involved, or loosely associated with the Latin Kings, the group became more violent and territorial.
Among Chinese and other Asian communities, certain criminal traditions and social isolation may be significant factors.
Vietnamese gangs, finding it difficult to assimilate into mainstream culture have been found to use drugs, maintain low visibility, and eschew symbols or distinct colors in the clothing.
In white communities, personal and family disorganization as well as the declining strength of local institutions may contribute to whites joining gangs. Gangs made up of whites, such as the racist Aryan Nation and New York”s Irish gang called the Westies, tend to recruit recent immigrants and poor, working class whites who feel alienated from their middle class counterparts.
According to Michael Fitzpatrick, a criminal defense attorney from Bridgeport, Connecticut, who has extensive experience trying gang-related cases on the state and federal level, gang-related cases require thorough knowledge of the particular gang to which the defendant is accused of belonging. This includes understanding the leadership of the gang – i.e., who had power within the gang and for how long. Power and leadership are fleeting in many gangs.
It is also essential to learn exactly when the client was a member of the gang, in case the crimes charged occurred before he entered or after he left the gang. A defendant may have fallen out of grace and been kicked out of the gang, and out of shame may not have told anyone.
Some offenses by a gang member may have nothing to do with the gang, such as assaulting someone who was talking to his girlfriend. Some offenses may not have been sanctioned by the gang or known to the other gang members. And it is not uncommon for individuals who are just a loose disorganized group to refer to themselves as a gang, such as the Crips, the Bloods, Latin Kings or Aryan Nation, when, in fact, they are merely “wanna be”s” with peripheral relationships to a particular gang.
To obtain as much information as possible on a gang and its members, Fitzpatrick suggests taking a look at the gang-monitoring units that most police departments use to gather extensive data on gangs in the community. Though he has found it difficult to obtain such data from his local police, he suggests that persistence and the development of formal and informal contacts with gang-monitoring units may produce success. He emphasizes that when all else fails, subpoenas should be used to obtain information from police departments. He also suggests motions that exclude or include, as appropriate, the client’s affiliation with a gang. The attorney must not only obtain data regarding what the police know about local gangs, but must assess the nature and extent of the information potential jurors may have on the local gangs. Newspaper clippings will be helpful in understanding how the media has presented gang-related behavior to the community.For those on the defense team who have responsibility for developing mitigation, finding out what motivated the client to join the gang is critical. The primary reason may have been to obtain a needed sense of belonging or protecting themselves and their family members. It is also important to identify ways in which a gang has contributed to a sense of well-being among its members and how it may have assisted individuals in the community. Since the media and the prosecution may only present the negative side of the client and the gang, it is important to canvass the community.
The language, symbols and rituals of a gang also must be understood. “Slob” and “Crab” may mean disrespecting someone.
Homicide may be simply “187,” or armed robbery “211.” “Cuzz” is a term of endearment used by the Crips to address each other. Individual gang members may be given a name that is based on a particular personality trait. behavior or geographical location. Some gangs, such as the Latin Kings, have extensive books on their history, which members must study. It has been noted that -some gang meetings resemble fraternal or civic meetings.
It is essential for the defense team to understand the nature of the gang, including its racial and ethnic makeup, its history in the community, the nature and duration of the clients involvement with the gang, and his or her motivation in joining the gang. This knowledge can equip defenders to properly advocate for their clients, defend them during trial, negotiate a plea or develop a sentencing plan. In a capital case, it can make the difference between life and death.