More than 1 million young people in the U.S. (about two percent of youth) belong to a gang, which is more than three times the number estimated by law enforcement, according to a new study. The researchers found that these young people come from all types of backgrounds and that gang involvement is greatest at age 14.
The study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, aims to brings to light the truth about gangs in the U.S. and challenges many popular demographic stereotypes.
“The public has been led to believe that gang members are black and Latino males and that once someone joins a gang they cannot leave a gang, both of which are patently false,” said David Pyrooz, Ph.D., assistant professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University.
The researchers say these stereotypes are reinforced by Hollywood and law enforcement. For the current study, they looked at the number of gang members, the characteristics of youth in gangs, and how many youth join and leave gangs each year in the U.S.
They also analyzed questions about gang membership from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, nationally representative data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The findings show that gangs have high turnover rates of 36 percent, with about 400,000 youth joining gangs and another 400,000 youth leaving gangs every year. Because of this, gangs have to constantly recruit new talent, not unlike service-industry or other occupations where employees frequently quit after a short period.
“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.
Law enforcement significantly undercounts juvenile gang members, with national estimates at 300,000, less than one-third of what the researchers found, they said. The reason, Pyrooz said, is that “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.”
Since gang life has so many negative health and life outcomes, even after a person leaves a gang, relying on law enforcement gang data alone would underdiagnose the problems of youth violence and the ways to respond to it, found the researchers.
“Rich and poor, black and white, male and female, and one and two-parent households — what matters is that law enforcement and health care clinicians avoid the stereotypes of these kids when working with this population.” said coauthor Gary Sweeten, Ph.D., associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University.
These young people represent an important target for prevention and intervention programs. The findings from this study are important for kids, parents and health care professionals to better understand and respond to gangs in schools, neighborhoods and care facilities based on facts and not popular perceptions.
Source: Sam Houston State University