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Study casts new light on gang membership in the US

Gary Sweeten, associate professor at Arizona State University
February 19, 2015

A recent study of American teenagers found that while economically disadvantaged minority youth are more likely to join gangs than other demographic groups, gang members come from all backgrounds.

The study, Gang membership between ages 5 and 17 years in the United States, was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health and challenges many popular demographic stereotypes about gangs.

“Accepting the portrayal of gang membership we see in the media as correct will lead to ineffective strategies to prevent gang joining and the problems that follow,” said co-author Gary Sweeten, associate professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University.

The study found that there are 1 million juvenile gang members in the United States, more than three times the number estimated by law enforcement. The study also emphasized the highly age-graded and transient nature of gang membership – noting that the most common age to join a gang is 13 and the most common age to leave is 14.

The study found that while minorities and those in poverty are more likely to join gangs, most gang members are non-Hispanic whites and not from impoverished homes. Twenty-nine percent are female.

Law enforcement severely undercounts juvenile gang members, with national estimates at 300,000 – less than one-third of what was found in the study.

“Law enforcement uses a top-down strategy, recording older and more criminally-involved youth as gang members, which ignores younger and more peripherally gang-involved youth; all of whom are captured in the bottom-up strategy we use in this study,” said lead author David Pyrooz, assistant professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University.

The estimate of 1 million juvenile gang members represents about 2 percent of the population from age five to 17 in the U.S. These gang members are highly concentrated in the early teen years. Pyrooz and Sweeten estimate that 5 percent of the nation’s 14-year-olds are gang members. Most youthful gang members quickly depart gangs, with about 400,000 joining gangs and another 400,000 leaving gangs every year.

“Being a gang member is not all that it is cracked up to be, which is something kids realize once they get involved and find out that the money, cars, girls and protection is more myth than reality,” said Pyrooz.

Because gang membership has so many negative health and life outcomes, even after someone leaves a gang, relying on law enforcement gang data alone would under-diagnose youth violence and limit ways to respond to it, the study found.

Gang youth represent an important group to be targeted for prevention and intervention programs. The findings from this study are important for youth, parents and health care professionals to better understand and respond to gangs in our schools, neighborhoods and care facilities, based on facts and not popular perceptions.