Report: Gang Membership Rises, Even As Violent Crimes Decline

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Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Gang membership and violent crime, typically two social ills that seem to go hand-in-hand, are no longer linked the way they were by traditional measures.

Apparently, although gangs are continuing to increase their numbers across the nation, violent crime is at its lowest level in nearly two generations. Head scratcher it may be, but not for those who watch crime and law enforcement figures. (Experts: Street Crime Too Often Blamed on Gangs.)

The National Gang Threat Assessment, released yearly by the U.S. Justice Department, counts a 25% jump in gang membership to more than 1 million in 2009. That figure is scary enough, particularly for those who live in areas where gangs are routinely manifest. But what is befuddling is another DOJ statistic released last month entitled the National Criminal Victimization Survey, which shows 17.1 violent crime incidents per 1,000 people, the lowest since 1973.

So how can an increase in gang membership, but a drop in violent crime be explained? Well, even the experts are shrugging their shoulders on this one. But one reason is that the most aggressively violent gang members, including those who order murders done by others in their groups, are locked up for lengthy terms.

“We’ve taken out so many of the leaders — stone cold killers — that it has fractured some of these organizations,” Chicago police commander Leo Schmitz told USA Today.

In Los Angeles, long known as an incubator for entire gang nations, Det. Jorge Luis Martinez, says membership is up to 45,000 from 43,000 a year ago. But the city’s 231 murders are 24% fewer than in 2008. He attributes what he calls a “fragile peace” to intervention strategies that involve ex-gangmembers calming a potentially retributive circumstance before it escalates. “We’ve been very fortunate so far,” Martinez says. “We’re going in the right direction.” (How to Turn Around a Gang Member.)