ASU Study Challenges Teen Gang Stereotypes

Everything you've heard about teen gangs is wrong.

That's the basic conclusion of a new study from Arizona State University.

"You think gang and you think 'boys in the hood', urban, minority boys living in bad neighborhoods," said Gary Sweeten, an associate professor of criminology and co-author of the report, which was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health this week. "But that's actually not where most of these gang members are coming from."

While poor minorities are more likely to join gangs, the majority of gang members are non-Hispanic whites who don't come from impoverished homes, Sweeten found. Nearly 30 percent are girls.

Gang activity also may be a lot more common than previously thought. Sweeten's research suggests that about a million U.S. teens identify as gang members, which is three times higher than law enforcement estimates.

Most get involved between ages 12 and 15, he said. About 5 percent of the nation's 14-year-olds have signed on.

However, many don't stay for long. About 400,000 teens join, and about 400,000 leave each year, according to the report.

"Being a gang member isn't all it's cracked up to be," Sweeten said. "It's not all girls, money, and protection. Kids realize that once they get involved and they get out."

To conduct the study, Sweeten and his co-author analyzed self-reported data collected from teens by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Sweeten said he hopes painting a more accurate picture of youth gang activity might help parents, policy makers, and law enforcement officials build better prevention programs.

"It's much better to prevent a 12-year-old from joining a gang than to try to deal with problems down the road," he said.

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Elizabeth Stuart
Contact: Elizabeth Stuart