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Youth Gang Involvement Is a Public Health Issue Into Adulthood, Study Concludes

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It probably won't surprise many educators that a young person's decision to join a gang will have negative effects that continue well into his or her future. But a new study, published this month in the American Journal of Public Health, paints a clearer picture of how long the effects of that decision echo and how negatively it impacts a broad scope of factors—from the likelihood of later drug abuse and incarceration to poor health in adulthood.

Authors of the study—who used data that tracked the well-being and behavior of Seattle area youth into their late 20s and early 30s—concluded that gang involvement is a public health issue, not just a criminal justice concern.

The study's authors are a part of the Social Development Research Group at the University of Washington in Seattle. They used survey data from a sample of 808 5th grade students who were attending 18 elementary schools serving high-crime neighborhoods of Seattle when researchers started tracking their behavior and outcomes in 1985. The scholars then compared outcomes for a portion of the youth who self-reported joining a gang to a control group pulled from the remaining participants. (21.4 percent of all survey respondents reported joining a gang and their average age of joining was 14.9 years.)

Survey data showed that:

  • "Adolescent gang membership significantly predicted self-reported crime, receipt of illegal income, and incarceration ... Specifically, in comparison with those who had never joined a gang, those who reported joining a gang in adolescence were (at age 27, 30, or 33 years) nearly three times as likely to report committing a crime in the preceding year, 3.66 times more likely to report receiving income from illegal sources, and 2.37 times more likely to have spent time incarcerated in the preceding year."
  • "Adolescent gang membership significantly predicted lower rates of high school graduation; those who had joined a gang in adolescence were about half as likely to graduate from high school as those who had never joined a gang but shared similar risk backgrounds."
  • "Finally, adolescent gang membership predicted poorer health and mental health in adulthood. Specifically, those who had joined a gang in adolescence were about 1.7 times more likely to report poor health at ages 27, 30, or 33 years than those who had never joined a gang. They were also nearly three times more likely to meet the criteria for drug abuse or dependence in the preceding year."

Those outcomes remained true even though many youth left gangs before entering adulthood. And they persisted even after researchers controlled for individual, family, peer, school, and neighborhood characteristics.

So what? Well, researchers said, new data about the lasting impact of gang membership could fuel momentum for prevention efforts in communities and schools. If those setting policy and controlling the purse strings understood that the consequences for a student of that one decision, they may be more driven to develop and implement effective programs, they conclude.

"Researchers and the lay community often consider gang membership only in the context of adolescence and, frequently, only in terms of involvement in crime and delinquency. We have found that adolescent gang membership has long-term consequences that extend beyond criminal activity, indicating that gang membership may have implications for public health beyond public safety. Our findings suggest that effective gang-prevention efforts may result not only in reductions in adolescent problem behavior but also in higher adult functioning across multiple domains. It is our hope that the results of this study will provide motivation for prevention scientists to develop, implement, and test effective programs to prevent young people from joining gangs."

Data released in September by the U.S. Department of Justice's office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention shows that gang activity is still a big problem for young people in the United States, and that many law enforcement agencies attribute the proliferation of gang activity to migration of gangs from specific geographic regions within the United States and from other countries.

"In 2011, there were an estimated 29,900 gangs (versus 29,000 in 2010) and 782,500 gang members (versus 756,000 in 2010) throughout 3,300 jurisdictions (down from 3,500 in 2010) with gang problems. The number of reported gang-related homicides decreased from 2,020 in 2010 to 1,824 in 2011." 

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