Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/ monkeybusinessimages

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/ monkeybusinessimages

Gangs are a bit scary. Kids in gangs certainly don’t look like victims.
In fact the word “gang” itself evokes images of violent young people, up to no good and creating victims of crime.
We know there’s more to it than that.
For instance gang members have higher than normal rates of mental health issues. But new research suggests that gang-affiliated young people may have a lot more to lose than their mental health.

The hidden victims in gangs…

In terms of mental health, gang members do badly. For instance, in one study:

  • 57% were drug-dependent
  • Two thirds were alcohol dependent
  • 25% were screened positively for psychosis
  • Almost 86% had an anti-social personality disorder
  • Nearly 59% had an anxiety disorder
  • Over a third had attempted suicide (source)

New research by Sam Houston University in the U.S. has uncovered a reciprocal relationship between offending and being victimised.
There are a number ways in which gangs enhance the likelihood of young people becoming both offenders and victims. For example:

  • a shared history of collective identity
  • unconventional ways to earn status in a gang
  • involvement in criminal activity and norms of retaliation, and
  • shared liability for being affiliated with a gang  (source)

In other words, just being in a gang means an increased risk of committing crime and being a victim of crime.
It is clear that those in gangs are often those with pre-existing factors that might predispose them to crime. However, the key point here is that gang membership is a forum that appears to multiply these effects and the associated risks.
As Professor David Pyrooz, principal author of the study, said:

“It is not that gangs aren’t comprised of impulsive youth who live high-risk lifestyles, but that gangs are equipped with a collection of group processes and ‘manpower’ that better facilitate trading places as victim and offender,”

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Practice implications…

For those of us working with young people who offend, there are some things to take account of here:

  • Gang membership may be more of an inevitability than a choice – coercion and the lack of prosocial options play their part in removing choice from some young people
  • Gang membership should be seen in light of the potential risk to a young person, not merely the risks they may pose to others – alone or collectively
  • Adolescence can blind workers to the very real safeguarding issues being faced by young people – we need to see way beyond the façade
  • Focussing some interventions on the underlying social and group status processes may help young people to see how being in a gang presents all kinds of problems
  • The offending emphasis associated with the consideration of gang issues, needs balancing with a view to the victimisation that gang members face
  • If young people come to the attention of the courts for gang related crime, they may also have been (or be at risk of being) victims of crime

Final thought…

This study dealt with 621 young people and was conducted in the U.S.A. Whilst the cultural and judicial differences mean there will be some dissonance with U.K. youth, there are some clear lessons here.
Not least of these is that of perception. They may look scary. They may well commit crime. But some, underneath it all, are victims of crime – how ironic!

Related previous posts…

Here are my previous posts on gangs:

Thoughts…?  Questions…?

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© Jonny Matthew 2014

Source reference: D. C. Pyrooz, R. K. Moule, S. H. Decker. The Contribution of Gang Membership to the Victim-Offender OverlapJournal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 2013; 51 (3): 315