Review of Risk and Protective Factors for Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Gang Involvement
The following discussion of risk factors for gang involvement first addresses why youth join gangs. This choice is influenced by factors that attract youth to gangs and also forces that push youth toward gangs. Protective factors either buffer youth from exposure to risk factors or diminish their harmful effects.
Why Youth Join Gangs
When youth make a conscious choice to join a gang during childhood or adolescence, multiple personal and environmental factors typically influence this decision (for a broad overview of this process, view the NGC online video at nationalgangcenter.ojp.gov, “Why Youth Join Gangs”). Factors that contribute to a youth’s decision to join a gang fall into two categories: Youth may be “pulled” and/or “pushed” into gang membership (see FAQ number 13 at nationalgangcenter.ojp.gov, What are risk factors for gang membership?). Pulls are features that attract youth. Gangs are often at the center of appealing social action—parties, hanging out, music, drugs, and opportunities to socialize with members of the opposite sex. In other words, a gang may be appealing because it meets a youth’s social needs.
Risk Factors for Gang Joining
Risk factors predict increased risk for developing a problem or disorder. In the context of gangs, risk factors are forces that push youth toward gangs or increase the likelihood that affected youth will join a gang. Researchers cannot predict whether a particular individual will join a gang. Rather, research shows that individuals who possess certain risk factors have an elevated chance of joining a gang. Gang research has identified several ways in which risk factors increase the likelihood of gang membership.
- These risk factors span all five social development sectors (family, peer group, school, individual characteristics, and community conditions) (Howell and Egley, 2005).
- There are no risk factors that uniquely predict a high probability of gang membership (Decker, Melde, and Pyrooz, 2013; Krohn and Thornberry, 2008). The same factors that predict gang membership also predict other problem behaviors (see Esbensen, Peterson, Taylor, and Freng, 2009).
- The greater the number of risk factors that youth experience, the greater the likelihood of gang involvement. In a Seattle study, elementary school children exposed to 7 or more of 19 measured risk factors were 13 times more likely to join a gang than children exposed to none or to only one risk factor (Hill, Howell, Hawkins et al., 1999).
- The presence of risk factors in multiple developmental domains produces the greatest risk of gang membership (Thornberry, Krohn, Lizotte et al., 2003).
- Key risk factors remain potent throughout adolescence (Gilman, Hill, Hawkins et al., 2014).
Risk Factors for Various Demographic Groups
As a general rule, risk factors apply to minorities and nonminorities alike and to both girls and boys. However, far more research has been conducted on males than on females, and females evidence several unique risk factors (Chesney-Lind, 2013; Petersen and Howell, 2013; Peterson, 2012; Peterson and Morgan, 2014). See FAQ number 12 at nationalgangcenter.ojp.gov on the topic of increasing female gang involvement.
- Violent family environments have been consistently identified among predictors of female gang involvement, including parental substance use, domestic violence, and child physical and sexual abuse (Peterson, 2012).
- Early dating is a key risk factor for gang joining among girls (Thornberry, et al., 2003).
- School-related problems such as academic failure, low educational aspirations, negative labeling, and trouble at school are key risk factors for gang joining among girls, and these may be more influential for them than for boys (Peterson, 2012; Thornberry, et al., 2003).
- In addition, school safety concerns are a major factor leading to gang involvement among youth of both genders (Gottfredson, 2013), perhaps particularly for girls (Bell, 2009).
A key finding is that youth need more than a simple majority of protective factors to overcome multiple risk factors (Stouthamer-Loeber, Loeber, Stallings, and Lacourse, 2008). Just one longitudinal study has been conducted to date on protective factors for gang involvement. This study found research support for protective factors in each of the five major developmental sectors of youths’ lives, from the 5th to 12th grades: prosocial family, school, neighborhood, and peer environments, and individual characteristics (Gilman, Hill, Hawkins, et al., 2014). Positive family and school environments appeared to operate through other domains, mainly peers and neighborhoods. In the family context, not living with a gang member was a key protective factor. Interestingly, these protective factors did not lose potency with age. There is some evidence that from mid-adolescence onward, broad categories of protective factors can reduce the incidence of violence (including gang fighting and gun carrying):
- Cumulative protection across domains
- Cumulative protection in the family domain
- Educational aspirations and self-esteem in the individual domain
- Parental supervision and parent/partner status in the family domain
Notably, the research suggested that increasing the level of positive feelings youth have for themselves and their parents, and empowering parents to better supervise teenagers’ behavior and choice of friends, are important protective factors (Krohn, Lizotte, Bushway, et al., 2014). There also is strong research support for other protective factors that buffer youth against overall violence that have been identified for the five developmental sectors of adolescents (Howell, Lipsey, and Wilson, 2014, pp. 21–22). For example, in the school domain, key protective factors are school achievement, bonding to school, a positive school climate, and others. In general, the wide array of research-supported protective factors against violence likely applies to gang members because this group and violent adolescents have many risk factors in common.
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