Due to the diversity of gang phenomena, no universally accepted definition of youth gang exists in the research literature. Often, the terms “street gangs” and “youth gangs” are used interchangeably. For the purpose of the present paper, the Klein and Maxson definition seems to be the most acceptable as it includes the most salient aspects of a youth gang as well as presents sufficient flexibility for addressing the diversity of the phenomenon in terms of law enforcement and community responses. The definition is as follows: "[A gang is] any denotable..... group [of adolescents and young adults] who (a) are generally perceived as a distinct aggregation by others in their neighborhood, (b) recognize themselves as a denotable group (almost invariably with a group name), and (c) have been involved in a sufficient number of [illegal] incidents to call forth a consistent negative response from neighborhood residents and/or enforcement agencies."
Scholars have identified a number of risk factors for the emergence and continuation of youth gangs. Research indicates that socio-economic (poverty and unemployment, actual or perceived disadvantage), family-related (dysfunctional, abusive or negligent family), school (poor academic performance and low attachment to schools) and community (disorganized, crime-prone and unsafe) factors that contribute to marginalization of youth, as well as negative individual/biological factors (anti-social attitudes, FASD) may contribute to the emergence and continued existence of youth gangs.
Data indicate that there are both push and pull factors that contribute to youths' decision to join a gang, and they overlap with the risk factors. These include: a dysfunctional family - characterized by abuse and neglect, socially disorganized communities, poor academic performance, lack of opportunities for pro-social activities including legitimate employment, presence of gang members in family, peer group and/or neighbourhood leading to modeling, and youths' needs for acceptance, love, discipline, structure, money, safety, personal protection and drugs.
Available research evidence demonstrates that youth gang members' age range is wide, from 8 to 50+ in some cases, that the average age tends to be 14-16, that there are more male than female gang members, and many gang members happen to come from socially marginalized and disadvantaged ethnic minority groups. A recent tendency of youth gangs including older youths or young adults has also been noted.
Most well-established gangs tend to have codes of conduct. They sometimes include initiation rites and distinct style and colour of clothing; they use graffiti, tattoos and special terminology to identify themselves as well as to mark their turfs. The price of non-compliance could be physical punishment, even death.
Gang members commit a variety of offences ranging from minor to serious, such as: graffiti, burglary, theft, vandalism, motor vehicle theft, arson, assault, drive-by shooting, selling crack, powder cocaine, marijuana and other drugs, home invasion, arson, intimidation, rape, robbery, shooting, and homicide. They may also engage in frauds, pirating and selling movies and music, identity theft, witness identification and intimidation, and communicating with other members of their gangs through cell phones, the Internet, and computers.
Researchers believe that gang membership has both short-term and long-term consequences for the youths and the community. Examples include risks of arrest, of incarceration, of injury and/or a violent death,