How to Help Me Get out of a Gang: Youth Recommendations to Family, School, Community, and Law Enforcement Systems

By Sharkey, Jill D.; Stifel, Skye W. F. et al. | Journal of Juvenile Justice, Winter 2015 | Go to article overview

How to Help Me Get out of a Gang: Youth Recommendations to Family, School, Community, and Law Enforcement Systems


Sharkey, Jill D., Stifel, Skye W. F., Mayworm, Ashley M., Journal of Juvenile Justice


Introduction

Many communities face the harsh realities of gangs and the subsequent societal difficulties they bring (Gilbertson, 2009). In 2010 there were an estimated 756,000 members of 29,400 gangs across 3,500 jurisdictions in the United States (Egley & Howell, 2012). Although previously assumed to be only an urban challenge, research has shown a shift in gang territory into suburban communities. Despite a decrease in youth crime rates over the past decade, gang activity continues to cause violent and serious crime at high levels; the 2010 National Youth Gang Study found that rates of gang activity reported by agencies nationwide remained stable over the previous 5 years (Egley & Howell, 2012). All social institutions must examine their role in this negative developmental trajectory and determine how they can help youths re-engage in healthy systems, such as schools, to get out of the gang life (Sharkey, Shekhtmester, Chavez-Lopez, Norris, & Sass, 2011).

Unfortunately, research investigating the effectiveness of interventions to reduce violence and increase healthy life outcomes for youths in gangs is limited. There are many reasons for this dearth of scholarship. First, identifying exactly who is in a gang is a challenge. The label of being a gang member carries serious consequences, including being targeted by law enforcement for noncriminal offenses, being treated with less respect by school and community members, and being targeted by gang members for recruitment or retaliation. Thus, valid methods for identifying gang membership are limited to self-identification (Esbensen, Winfree, He, & Taylor, 2001 ). Second, given the complexity of gang members' involvement in risk behaviors, interventions tend to be multidimensional and poorly tracked; it is difficult to isolate which interventions have helped the youths and in what way, as compared to what has not helped or even done harm (Klein, 2011). Third, rigorous methodology is challenged by the ethical mandate to intervene with all youths, making random assignment to treatment infeasible. Fourth, agencies are not able to share sensitive and protected data without overcoming collaboration and permission challenges. Moreover, once sensitive data are shared they may be used against participants who are brought to trial. Youths who are involved in gangs may hesitate to allow sharing of their personal information for fear of how it might be used against them by institutions they already distrust. Fifth, gang risks and behavioral patterns may differ: what works in a large urban environment may not be the best fit for a smaller suburban community (Klein, 2011). All of these factors affect the course of gang research that has, for the most part, focused on risk factors and negative outcomes rather than resilience (Sharkey et al., 2011).

It is important to examine gang desistance as distinct from joining, as reasons for leaving a gang are not simply the opposite of those for joining (Pyrooz & Decker, 2011). For example, if lacking prosocial activities during free time is a motivation to join a gang, providing members with prosocial activities may not motivate them to leave the gang. Scholars have recognized that desistance from gangs can take one of two pathways: either an immediate departure that involves eliminating gang activity or a gradual disengagement from the gang (Pyrooz, Decker, & Webb, 2010). However, a deeper understanding of how these pathways are initiated and which ones lead to greater success is not yet available (Pyrooz, Sweeten, & Piquero, 2013). Literature on desistance from various organized groups, including racist, terrorist, and criminal groups, has identified leaving as motivated by "push" and "pull"factors (Bjorgo, 2009; Petersilia, 2003). Factors that push individuals out of such groups include disillusionment with the group ideology or functioning, whereas factors that pull individuals away include family responsibilities, maturation, or a desire for a mainstream life. …

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