Posted: March 22nd, 2023

Gaining an Understanding of Juvenile Crime Through Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs


Gaining a better understanding of juvenile crime is essential to forensic social workers and others in related professions who work with youth at risk or involved with the juvenile justice system.  This paper will discuss Abraham Maslow’s (1943, 1970) needs-based theory of motivation to help understand why youth resort to actions and behaviors that lead to a path of crime.  In particular, the rationale of youth gangs will be examined, followed by some suggestions for preventing juvenile crime based on Maslow’s needs hierarchy.

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Maslow (1970) developed a needs-based theory explaining human motivation, which was summed up in a few categories detailing the motivational needs that drive human actions.  He described these needs in a hierarchy of levels from basic to metaphysical needs: physiological needs, safety needs, belongingness and love/social needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization needs.  In the above order, these categories generally emerge from another, i.e.,  as one need is filled, the next level manifests.  While not every individual subscribes to the exact hierarchy order of needs, most people will not be motivated by higher needs when they lack fulfillment of the basic needs, i.e., food, clothing, and shelter (Maslow, 1970). Understanding thus far that people are motivated by the needs they lack, we can apply this theory to understand what motivates juvenile offenders, more specifically juvenile gang members.

What is a Gang?

A gang is a group of individuals who join together in a cohesive unit with a common purpose. Gangs are generally structured hierarchically with strong leadership and internal organization. Gangs often have initiation rites involving candidates proving their loyalty through illegal acts to become gang members, often called ‘gangsters’. (,  2013)

Facts About Gangs and Gang-Related Crime

According to FBI reports, the total number of gangs in the U.S. is 24,500; 40 percent of gang members are minors, and 90 percent of juvenile delinquents in correctional facilities are affiliated with gangs (, 2013). The whole list of criminal cases is listed in the table below. 

Common gang-related crimes are homicides, use of guns, drug sales, graffiti property, and violence crimes.

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Respondents indicated whether their agencies have instituted procedures for regularly recording criminal offenses as “gang-related.”

*Other than homicides and graffiti, law enforcement agencies generally do not record any criminal offenses as “gang-related.”

Across the seven offenses below, one-third or less of the agencies reported regularly recording each as “gang-related.”

*Respondents reported personal recording offenses, firearms use, and drug crimes as “gang-related” at a slightly higher rate than property-related crimes.

The relative lack of definitive and comprehensive gang-crime statistics for violent and nonviolent offenses signifies that much remains unknown about gang crime trends.

(National Gang Center, 2011)

*The report’s key findings show that as of September 2008, approximately one million gang members belonged to more than 20,000 criminally active gangs within all fifty states and the District of Columbia. In addition, it found that local gangs, or neighborhood-based street gangs, remain a significant threat because they constitute the largest number of gangs nationwide and engage in violence in conjunction with varied crimes, including retail level drug distribution.

*The recruits generally range in age from 10 to 24 years but they are getting younger. Most members are boys, but 10% of all gang members are girls, and some say this percentage is growing fast.

Although there are many reasons and factors for gang proliferation, the following facts give hope to those who work with gang-involved youth: “Law enforcement estimates of nationwide juvenile gang membership suggest that no more than 1% of all youth ages 10-17 are gang members.” (OJJDP 2006)“The best estimate of general U.S. youth gang prevalence is 5% ever-joined, 2% current gang members… the strongest message in this research is that most youth (7 or 8 out of 10) do not join gangs through adolescence.” (Klein, Maxson – “Street Gang Patterns and Policies” 2006)

(Esperanza, 2010).

 Why the Youth Join Gangs

What attracts youth to gangs? According to Guerra, Dierkhising, and Payne (as cited in Ritter, Simon, & Mahendra, 2014), “The decision is a consequence of a particular life environment, behavior and way of thinking that leads a child to adopt the gang lifestyle later on.”  Five common factors have been found to draw youth to gangs. They are: “1. Economics; 2. Relationships; 3. Protection; 4. Status; and 5. Outlaw culture” (Ritter, Simon, & Mahendra, 2014).  These five reasons directly correspond to the five levels of needs in Maslow’s hierarchy (1943, 1970), as follows:

Economics – basic needs of food and shelter, or means of obtaining these needs:

Gang members often live in inner city/poverty-stricken neighborhoods, where gangs are prevalent. Joining a gang can ensure the member has a place to sleep, food to eat, and occasional cash from criminal activities or contraband.  Insert examples

Relationships – social needs

It is common for gang members to come from unstable homes/dysfunctional family structures and/or struggle to fit in with peers at school, and as such, they need to belong to and feel part of a group (Sharkey, Shekhtmeyster, Chavez-Lopez, Noriss, & Sass, 2011).  Often gang members become a surrogate families for one another. In addition, members belong to the gang, as the mentality of the gang is to ‘own’ its members, i.e. if someone deflects or acts disloyal, he/she will be penalized (Esperanza, 2010).

Protection – the need for safety and security:

The daily life of gangs is fraught with danger, as the neighborhoods that youth in gangs grow up in are unsafe. Youth who were interviewed to discover why they joined a gang responded with statements such as, ‘I know they have my back and will protect me,’  or ‘nobody will start up with me because I’m in the gang” (Sharkey, Shekhtmeyster, Chavez-Lopez, Noriss, & Sass, 2011).

Status – prestige:

Likewise, gang members reported that they felt important because they were part of a gang or that they had positions of power at school and were influential amongst their peers (Sharkey, Shekhtmeyster, Chavez-Lopez, Noriss, & Sass, 2011). Being part of a gang often boosts members’ self-esteem because of the recognition they are received from peers.

Outlaw culture – need for self-actualization:

Finally, youth are attracted to gangs because of the ‘outlaw culture,’ the mentality they grow up with that joining a gang is a status symbol, indicative that they have “made it.” In fact, some youth actually consider joining a gang as a goal in itself, as a rite of passage to adulthood; and when achieved, it fulfills the individual’s need for ‘self-actualization’ in accordance with Maslow’s needs hierarchy (Esperanza, 2010; Sharkey, et al., 2011).

Why Can’t Members Leave Gangs?

Members who may wish to leave their gangs are often reluctant to do so because of the danger they face.  The simple answer to why members don’t leave is gang violence.  According to the Esperanza organization (2010), gangs use violence as a means of control to defend or expand territory, gain new members, enforce rules, exact revenge, and prevent deserters.

Gangs have unspoken rules which members must obey or face consequences that can sometimes be life-threatening.  Part of these rules is that gang members must show respect and loyalty to each other and to the group’s ideals and defend one another when challenged by outsiders (Esperanza, 2010). A gang’s reputation may never be put at risk by a member, and leaving a gang is seen as an act of challenge, defiance, and disloyalty, which will lower the gang’s status (Esperanza, 2010). When a challenge is issued to the gang, there is often swift retaliation via an act of violence that will “increase a member’s individual status or to [sic] regain the gang’s respect and reputation” (Esperanza, 2010).

Intervention and Prevention Strategies

In light of the difficulties preventing gang members from renouncing their association with their gang, what can forensic social workers and law enforcers do to prevent at-risk youth from joining gangs in the first place? 


Schools are pre-existing societal institutions that can be used as venues for remediation. At-risk youth attracted to gangs are already in schools by default; therefore, utilizing school systems as an intervention would be ideal as teachers and other staff are positioned to connect with and become healthy role models for at-risk teens. Schools have the capacity and wherewithal to meet the needs of at-risk students, not only from an academic front but also by collaborating with local law enforcement, businesses, public officials, and community members to expose youth to attractive, healthy alternatives to joining gangs.

Every compelling reason not to join or remain in a gang.

Programs such as G.R.E.A.T.

Our proposed model for gang involvement indicates the need for an approach that acknowledges the school system’s responsible for treating individuals within a societal context in a way that denies some youths access to basic human needs such as security and protection, healthy adult and peer role models, belonging and identity, self-esteem and respect, and conventional pathways to success. Fortunately, despite policy and practice barriers, schools are positioned to meet the needs of at-risk youth as they hold the greatest time and programmatic responsibility for school-age children and youth outside the family.

Schools’ potential for playing a critical role in gang intervention efforts lies not only with necessary academic remediation but also as collaborators in providing other social services, recreational programs, and antigang and psychosocial curriculum delivery. Although many gang members are dropouts who have been long alienated from the school environment, sizable percentages of gang members are still active school participants (Spergel, 1990). Thus, gang-aware school staff, supportive school environments, and vigorous academic and social programs may be essential components in preventing many potential future gang members. Research has shown that youth who felt good about their academic skills, were bonded to school, felt that education leads to a successful career, and had positive relationships with a peer social group and mentors were less likely to join a gang than youth without these protections

Correspondingly, the developmental tasks of adolescents, according to Erikson’s psychosocial stages, help identify the motivations of youth who join gangs.

Identity vs Role Confusion  Fidelity

When they reach the teenage years, children start to care about how they look to others. They start forming their own identity by experimenting with who they are. If a teenager is unable to properly develop an identity at this age, his or her role confusion will probably Genital continue on into adulthood.

Erikson, E. H. (1982). The life cycle completed. New York: W.W. Norton.

“Identity versus confusion is the fifth stage of Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development. This stage occurs during adolescence between the ages of approximately 12 to 18. Teens need to develop a sense of self and personal identity. During adolescence, children are exploring their independence and developing a sense of self.

As they make the transition from childhood to adulthood, teens may begin to feel confused or insecure about themselves and how they fit in to society. As they seek to establish a sense of self, teens may experiment with different roles, activities and behaviors. According to Erikson, this is important to the process of forming a strong identity and developing a sense of direction in life.

Those who receive proper encouragement and reinforcement through personal exploration will emerge from this stage with a strong sense of self and a feeling of independence and control. Those who remain unsure of their beliefs and desires will insecure and confused about themselves and the future.”


Clinical 5-7 page paper due April 6

  1. maslow’s hierarchy “gangs can be explained by maslow’s hierarchy” – explain in detail how a gang meets the needs as in the hierarchy
  2. what can we do to prevent this, using the theory of maslow : a. schools – preventive
  3. corrective – in jail facility
  4. opinion




Esperanza. (2010). Gangs 101: Understanding the culture of youth violence. Esperanza: Philadelphia, PA.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation.  Retrieved from

Maslow, A. H. (1970). Motivation and personality (2nd ed.). Harper & Row: NY, New York.

Sharkey, J. K., Shekhtmeyster, Z., Chavez-Lopez, L., Noriss, E., & Sass, L. (2011). The protective influence of gangs: Can schools compensate?.  Aggression and Violent Behavior, 16(1), 45-54. doi:10.1016/j.avb.2010.11.001. Retrieved from ScienceDirect database. (2013). Gang statistics. [online] Retrieved from:

Williams, B. M. (2011). An open road to delinquency: An analysis of the special education system in American Public Schools employing conflict theory.  Proceedings of the NCUR, Webster State University.

Ritter, N., Simon, T. & Mahendra, R. (2014). Changing course: keeping kids out of gangs. 273 16–27. Retrieved from:

National Gang Center. (2011). National Youth Gang Survey Analysis. Retrieved April 2014, from

Guerra, N. G., Dierkhising, C. B., & Payne, P. R. (2013). Changing course: Preventing gang membership.

Oakes, C. J. (n.d.). The cause of crime is elementary dear Watson (web log message). Retrieved from

Erikson, E. H. (1982). The life cycle completed. New York: W.W. Norton.


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