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Study casts new light on juvenile gang members in the U.S.

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A recent study of U.S. teenagers found that while economically disadvantaged minority youth are more likely to join gangs than other demographic groups, gang members come from all backgrounds. The study also found that there are one million juvenile gang members in the U.S., more than three times the number estimated by law enforcement. Last, the study emphasized the highly age-graded and transient nature of gang membership. The most common age to join a gang is 13 and the most common age to leave is 14.

“Gang membership between ages 5 and 17 years in the United States,” which was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, challenges many popular demographic stereotypes about gangs. The study found that while minorities and those in poverty are more likely to join gangs, most gang members are non-Hispanic whites and not from impoverished homes. 29 percent are female.

 “Accepting the portrayal of gang membership we see in the media as correct will lead to ineffective strategies to prevent gang joining and the problems that follow,” says co-author Gary Sweeten, associate professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University.

Law enforcement severely undercounts juvenile gang members, with national estimates at 300,000, less than one-third of what was found in the study.

“The reason law enforcement uses a top-down strategy, recording older and more criminally-involved youth as gang members, which ignores younger and more peripherally gang-involved youth, all of whom are captured in the bottom-up strategy we use in this study,” says lead author David Pyrooz, assistant professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University. Pyrooz earned his doctorate from the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice in 2012.

The estimate of one million juvenile gang members represents about two percent of the population from age 5 to 17 in the U.S. These one million gang members are highly concentrated in the early teen years. Pyrooz and Sweeten estimate that five percent of the nation’s 14-year-olds are gang members. Most youthful gang members quickly depart gangs, with about 400,000 joining gangs and another 400,000 leaving gangs every year.

“Being a gang member is not all that it is cracked up to be, which is something kids realize once they get involved and find out that the money, cars, girls, and protection is more myth than reality,” Pyrooz says.

Because gang membership has so many negative health and life outcomes, even after someone leaves a gang, relying on law enforcement gang data alone would under-diagnose problems youth violence and ways to respond to it, the study found.

These youth represent an important group to be targeted for prevention and intervention programs. The findings from this study are important for youth, parents, and healthcare professionals to better understand and respond to gangs in our schools, neighborhoods, and care facilities based on facts and not popular perceptions.

The study can be found at


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