HD36 - Report on Survey of Youth Gang Activity in Virginia

Executive Summary:
Legislative interest in gangs and gang behavior in Virginia has increased in recent years. In 1992, the Virginia State Police conducted surveys of law enforcement personnel that attended two street gangs seminars. These surveys were followed with a telephone survey in 1994. As a result of concern that youth gangs were on the increase, the 1996 General Assembly directed the Virginia Commission on Youth (COY) to conduct a study on youth gangs in Virginia. Each of these efforts was designed to assess the prevalence of youth gangs in Virginia.

During the 1999 session, the General Assembly passed House Joint Resolution (HJR) 539 to update these earlier findings. This resolution directed the Department of Criminal Justice Services to investigate youth gang activity in Virginia. To fulfill this mandate, surveys were sent to seven groups, each having a different role in its interactions with youth. The seven groups were: Chiefs of Police, Sheriffs, Educators, Court Service Unit Directors, Probation Supervisors, Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Judges, and Commonwealth's Attorneys.

Youth Gang Prevalence

Of the 1313 surveys distributed, 844 were returned, producing an overall response rate of 64%. All of Virginia's localities were represented by at least one agency's returned survey. A total of 63 localities out of 135 (40 counties and 23 cities) reported gang activity, representing 47% of Virginia's localities. There was not necessarily agreement, however, among various agencies in the same locality. In fact, only six localities that reported gang activity had agreement across all responding agencies. Further, in 41% of the 63 localities reporting youth gangs, only one respondent group reported the existence of gangs. These differing opinions across agencies in the same locality may illustrate the difficulties inherent in defining gang activity. Although estimating the number of unique gangs is difficult due to variations in gang names and spelling, the findings suggested that approximately 321 gangs currently exist in Virginia. This study also asked respondents to estimate the change in the number of gangs and gang membership in the three years since the COY effort. Most respondents indicated that the number of gangs and gang members in their locality had increased or stayed the same.

Youth Gang Characteristics

The gang characteristics reported from these localities stated that about two-thirds of reported youth gangs engage in some violent crime. Gang violence is reported to be most often directed at other gang members. The most common offenses reported across all respondents were assault, vandalism/destruction, and intimidation. Less than half of reported gangs were described as engaging in drug distribution. Of gangs that sell drugs, marijuana is the most frequently reported drug being sold or distributed by gang members, with cocaine/crack a close second. Although few gang-related offenses were reported to involve weapons, over half of respondents who reported weapons use cited hands/feet/fists as the most common weapons used. Firearms and knives/cutting instruments were reported about half as often.