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Gangs and Delinquency Wins National Research Award

by Greta Petry (September 12, 2003)

A recent book by University at Albany professor Terence Thornberry and his colleagues, Gangs and Delinquency in Developmental Perspective (Cambridge University Press), has won the American Society of Criminology’s 2003 Michael J. Hindelang Award for the most outstanding contribution to research in criminology.

Thornberry, a distinguished professor of criminal justice and director of the Hindelang Criminal Justice Research Center, has directed the Rochester Youth Development Study (RYDS) since its inception in 1986. His co-authors are: Marvin Krohn, professor of sociology with a joint appointment in the School of Criminal Justice, and the author of many articles on adolescent delinquency, drug use, gangs, and gun use; Alan Lizotte, professor of criminal justice and a nationally known expert on patterns of gun ownership and the impact of guns on criminal behavior; Carolyn Smith, an associate professor of social welfare who studies the impact of the family, including parental abuse and maltreatment, on teen development; and Kimberly Tobin, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Westfield State College, who earned her Ph.D. in sociology from UAlbany.

According to the authors, being a member of a gang is not a lifelong choice, as it was for the Jets in the classic play “West Side Story,” but more likely to be a brief stint in adolescence that leads to dramatic increases in delinquency, gun use, and violent crime. And while members may not be “a Jet all the way” for life, joining for even a year may have far-reaching consequences when it comes to making life choices like graduating from high school, getting a job, and delaying having a child until adulthood.

The study on which the book is based, the RYDS, is unique for several reasons. Instead of being the traditional “snapshot” of gang members at a certain age, the research selected 1,000 seventh and eighth graders in the Rochester public schools in 1988, and tracked them to the present. The research began before any of the students had joined a gang. Eventually 30.9 percent of them did. “While representing only a third of the sample, gang members are responsible for about two-thirds of the delinquencies, a disparity that becomes even larger for more serious and violent offenses” (p. 183). Most of those who did join were members for about a year, and gang membership was most common between grades
8 and 10.

The original young people in the study are now 28 years old. They are being studied again to see how they have fared in school, at work, and in marriage and/or raising a family.

The results reveal significant negative consequences of gang membership, which disrupts development in early adolescence. “For the male subjects, stable gang members are more apt than the nonmembers to be high school dropouts, to impregnate a girl at an early age, to be teen fathers, to cohabit, to have unstable employment patterns, and to have multiple disorderly transitions” (p. 186). The pattern of early parenthood, unstable employment, and problems adjusting to adult transitions extended to female gang members.

At age 30 the subjects will be interviewed again. Krohn noted researchers are also interviewing the oldest child of the original participants. The Rochester study is one of the few to examine “the ripple effect of gang membership on succeeding generations,” he said.

Since parents of the 1988 seventh and eighth graders also participated, the study will eventually represent three generations of the original urban cohort of randomly selected youth.
Since the study tracks its subjects across time, it provides evidence of a depth not ordinarily available. Thornberry said, “One of the things that prior research could not tell us was whether teens were violent because they were in gangs, or whether they were violent individuals who just happened to join gangs.” The answer: “The research shows clearly that delinquent behavior and violent behavior only increase with active gang membership. There is something about joining gangs that increases serious violent behavior.”

Lizotte added: “It is the same with illegal gun use – gun use goes up dramatically when adolescents join gangs. You don’t have to own a gun to use one; you can borrow or rent one. The gang membership provides access you wouldn’t ordinarily have.”

The study changes accepted notions about gender and gangs. Smith said: “The perception in the past was that girls in gangs either acted as accessories, or were on the periphery of activity. In fact, we find that girls in gangs behave similarly to boys in gangs.”

Boys and girls in the Rochester study joined gangs with almost equal frequency. Tobin pointed out, “Just over 30 percent of the boys and just under 30 percent of the girls had been gang members at some point during adolescence.”

The boys and girls in the study were assessed on about 40 risk factors, including drug use, whether parents expected their child to go to college, and socioeconomic status. Smith said those with multiple risk factors across many areas were more likely to join a gang. Boys who had fewer than 10 risk factors that were measured did not join at all; yet of those who had 21 or more of the risk factors, 43.5 percent joined.

Some of the risk factors that predicted joining a gang included early dating and sexual activity (boys who were already sexually active joined a gang to meet or impress girls); doing poorly in school; living in a dangerous neighborhood; using drugs; and poverty. However, when asked why they joined, members described a side of gang membership that was glamorous to them. “While gangs can be a violent and volatile environment, they are also a source of adolescent pleasure. The gang is often where the action is, a ready source of drugs, parties, dating and sexual partners, and risk-taking behaviors (p. 93).” The need for protection was cited as another reason for joining.

One conclusion suggested by these findings and by other studies of gang intervention that may be of interest to the criminal justice community is that prevention programs that work directly with the gang as a group have no demonstrated positive effect. In fact, they appear to give the gang a setting in which to become more cohesive and aggressive.

“Programs directed at the gang environment should go very slowly in direct intervention,” Thornberry said. “A more sensible approach is the indirect model. Family and school intervention can be effective.” For example, Multisystemic Treatment (MST), an intervention method developed by Scott Henggeler for serious delinquents ages 15-17, has demonstrated effectiveness.

The RYDS has been supported by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) in the U.S. Depart ment of Justice, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Science Foundation. The ASC award will be presented November 19 at the annual meeting of the society in Denver, Colo.


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