Why Do Youth Join Gangs?

Photo - Dark StreetDecker and Van Winkle (1996) view joining youth gangs as consisting of both pulls and pushes. Pulls pertain to the attractiveness of the gang. Gang membership can enhance prestige or status among friends (Baccaglini, 1993), especially girls (for boys) (Decker and Van Winkle, 1996), and provide opportunities to be with them (Slayton, Stephens, and MacKenna, 1993). Gangs provide other attractive opportunities such as the chance for excitement (Pennell et al., 1994) by selling drugs and making money (Decker and Van Winkle, 1996). Thus, many youth see themselves as making a rational choice in deciding to join a gang: They see personal advantages to gang membership (Sanchez-Jankowski, 1991).

Social, economic, and cultural forces push many adolescents in the direction of gangs. Protection from other gangs and perceived general well-being are key factors (Baccaglini, 1993; Decker and Van Winkle, 1996). As noted above, some researchers contend that the "underclass" (Wilson, 1987) status of minority youth serves to push them into gangs (Hagedorn, 1988; Moore, 1978; Taylor, 1989; Vigil, 1988). Feeling marginal, adolescents join gangs for social relationships that give them a sense of identity (Vigil and Long, 1990). For some youth, gangs provide a way of solving social adjustment problems, particularly the trials and tribulations of adolescence (Short and Strodtbeck, 1965). In some communities, youth are intensively recruited or coerced into gangs (Johnstone, 1983). They seemingly have no choice. A few are virtually born into gangs as a result of neighborhood traditions and their parents' earlier (and perhaps continuing) gang participation or involvement in criminal activity (Moore, 1978).

Risk Factors for Gang Membership

Table 1 summarizes risk factors for youth gang membership that have been identified in studies using many types of research methods, including cross-sectional, longitudinal, and ethnographic (observational) studies. Examination of this table suggests that the present state of knowledge of risk factors for gang membership is not refined. Because so many risk factors have been identified, it is difficult to determine priorities for gang prevention and intervention programs without an indepth assessment of the crime problem that identifies the most prevalent risk factors.

Long-term studies of large samples of urban adolescents in Rochester, NY (Thornberry, 1998), and Seattle (Hill et al., in press) have identified causal risk factors for gang membership. Both studies, the former funded by OJJDP and the latter supported by OJJDP and other agencies and organizations, measure risk factors in the community, family, school, peer group, and individual attribute domains. Because both studies are collecting data on their respective samples over a long period of time, risk factors measured in early adolescence can be used to predict gang membership at points later in adolescence. The identification of early risk factors indicates priorities for prevention and intervention programs.

In the Rochester study, Thornberry (1998) found predictors of gang membership among males in all five of the domains listed above. The most important community risk factor is growing up in neighborhoods in which the level of social integration (attachment) is low. Neither high levels of neighborhood disorganization nor high levels of violence predict gang membership. Among family variables, poverty, absence of biological parents, low parental attachment to the child, and low parental supervision all increase the probability of gang membership. Three school variables are very significant risk factors: low expectations for success in school (both by parents and students), low student commitment to school, and low attachment to teachers. Along with school factors, peers have a very strong impact on gang membership. Associating with delinquent friends and unsupervised "hanging around" with these delinquent friends are a potent combination. Important individual risk factors identified in the Rochester study are low self-esteem, numerous negative life events, depressive symptoms, and easy access to drugs or favorable views toward drug use. Finally, youth who use drugs and are involved in delinquency -- particularly violent delinquency -- are more likely to become gang members than are youth who are less involved in delinquency and drug use. In sum, "youth who grow up in more disorganized neighborhoods; who come from impoverished, distressed families; who do poorly in school and have low attachment to school and teachers; who associate with delinquent peers; and engage in various forms of problem behaviors are at increased risk for becoming gang members" (Thornberry, 1998:157).

Seattle researchers discovered somewhat similar risk factors compared with Thornberry's analysis for both male and female gang membership (Hill et al., in press; Kosterman et al., 1996). The most important community factor identified in the Seattle study is growing up in neighborhoods where drugs are readily available. Several family variables are important: family instability, extreme economic deprivation, family management problems, parents with violent attitudes, and sibling antisocial behavior. Numerous school factors have been identified, including low educational aspiration, low commitment to school, low school attachment, high levels of antisocial behavior in school, low achievement test scores, the identity of being learning disabled, and low grades. The most important peer group factor is associating with law-violating peers. Individual risk factors are the early use of alcohol and marijuana, prior delinquency, hyperactivity, externalizing behaviors (hostility, aggression, and rule breaking), poor skills in refusing offers to engage in antisocial behavior, and early sexual activity. Being a male, feeling unsafe in the neighborhood, and residing in a poor family put youth at high risk for gang involvement, regardless of other community, family, school, or peer risk factors (Kosterman et al., 1996). However, the greater the number of risk factors to which youth are exposed, the greater their risk of joining a gang in adolescence. Children who experience 7 or more risk factors at ages 10 to 12 are 13 times more likely to join a gang in adolescence than children who experience only 1 risk factor or none at those early ages (Hill et al., in press).

Youth Gangs: An Overview Juvenile Justice Bulletin   ·  August 1998