At the time of publication, there were about 756,000 gang members in the U.S. who were involved in one the of estimated 29,400 gangs, according to Arlen Egley, Jr., and James C. Howell’s report, “Highlights of the 2010 National Youth Gang Survey” from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Once known for being prominent only in major U.S. cities, now small cities, rural communities and the suburbs aren’t immune to the presence of gangs. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, teens at risk for joining a gang include those who perceive a deficiency in their lives and seek a “loyal support group of peers.”
Youth who are disconnected from traditional forms of social and interpersonal support systems, like family and school, are at greater risk for joining a gang. The Los Angeles Police Department states that the allure of fellowship and camaraderie appeals to a teen looking for companionship and an extension of his family. It’s not unusual for a teen interested in joining a gang to have a relative who's currently involved with a gang or has been in the past. Some gangs appeal to a teen’s longing for protection, recognition or social status that he thinks he can’t earn elsewhere. When a teen first joins a gang, the group is likely to satisfy his social needs. However, he may also be encouraged to become more antisocial and hold antisocial beliefs and attitudes for the benefit of the group so he can remain in the gang and receive the perceived benefits.
Most teens who join gangs are generally already involved in drug use and delinquency, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. After a teen is initiated into a gang, he’s more likely to get involved in drug and/or alcohol use, violent behaviors and other forms of delinquency like theft, truancy and selling drugs. Consequently, the young person’s risk for getting arrested increases. The longer a teen stays in a gang, the more the group becomes a “social network” that greatly influences his behaviors, discourages conventional aspirations and limits his access to positive, prosocial groups. While a teen may see a gang as a way to give his life stability and order, the group ultimately does the opposite, as the perceived friendships become less stable over time and bring about a series of difficult and destructive transitions.
When a teen is influenced by gangs, she’s more likely to reduce her commitment to her studies and school performance as her delinquent behaviors or drug use increase. Consequently, her risk for learning difficulties and dropping out also increases, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s “Highlights of Findings from the Rochester Youth Development Study” by Katharine Browning, PhD, Terence P. Thornberry, PhD, and Pamela K. Porter, MSE. When there’s a gang influence in schools, there’s a greater presence of guns and drugs. Teens who aren't gang members, therefore, increase their reports of seeing drugs and weapons on campus. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reports that gang presence in schools doubles the likelihood of violent acts on campus and can create an environment of fear among all the students.
While teen gang members may demonstrate delinquent behaviors and break the law, they often become victims because of their gang involvement. For example, in “Highlights of Findings from the Denver Youth Survey” by Katharine Browning, PhD, and David Huizinga, PhD, the study found that up to 87 percent teens who were involved in gangs for at least five years were victims of theft or a violent crime -- and were also perpetrators of such offenses. Of the victims in crimes reported, a quarter of them were survivors of a “serious” violent crime. Two-thirds of the youth gang members surveyed were chronic victims who experienced multiple offenses during a period of at least one year.