Risk factors are conditions in the individual or environment that can predict an increased likelihood of developing a problem. Several studies have identified causes, or risk factors, that, if present for a given individual, make it more likely he or she will develop a problem behavior, including joining a gang (Howell, 2003, 2009; Howell and Egley, 2005). Although research has not yet clearly identified unique risk factors for gang involvement, in general, it is predicted by the same risk factors as general forms of delinquency and violence; however, youth with elevated risk for gang-joining tend to have more risk factors than youth at risk for general delinquency.
Many community collaborative approaches call for an integrated approach incorporating not only intervention and suppression efforts but prevention and early intervention as well; i.e., a continuum of program options. One of the purposes of this type of approach is to identify conditions in the environment and in the child that increase the risk of problem behavior early in childhood/adolescence and predict delinquency and gang involvement later on. The intent is that prevention and early intervention programs address and reduce these risk factors.
Juvenile delinquency is a precursor behavior to gang membership. Put otherwise, virtually all youths who join a gang evidence prior delinquency involvement. Studies also show that antecedents of gang involvement begin to come into play long before youths reach a typical age for joining a gang. For the highest-risk youth, a stepping-stone pattern appears to begin as early as ages 3–4 with the emergence of conduct problems, followed by elementary school failure at ages 6–12; delinquency onset by age 12; gang-joining around ages 13–15; and serious, violent, and chronic delinquency onward from midadolescence (Howell and Egley, 2005). Therefore, risk factors for both delinquency and gang membership are included in this review, and communities that wish to prevent and reduce gang involvement are encouraged to address risk factors for juvenile delinquency at the same time (see Howell and Egley, 2005, p. 340, or Howell, 2009, p. 70, for an illustration of the integration of the two sets of risk factors).
Risk factors are often grouped into five developmental domains: family, individual, school, peers, and community (Howell and Egley, 2005). The following discussion (Howell, 2009, pp. 69–80) illustrates how risk factors in these domains operate from early adolescent onward.
When linked with certain family and child characteristics, concentrated disadvantage impedes socialization of children (Loeber, Farrington, and Petechuk, 2003; Tremblay, 2003). Important family variables in the preschool stage include low parental education (social capital) and a host of family problems (Loeber and Farrington, 2001), including a broken home, parental criminality, poor family or child management, abuse and neglect, serious marital discord, and young motherhood (Pogarsky, Lizotte, and Thornberry, 2003). Family influences begin to fade in adolescence (Lahey et al., 1999; Lipsey and Derzon, 1998; Thornberry, Lizotte, et al., 2003), and studies do not distinguish clearly the family influences on gang membership that remain in adolescence from those that were potent at an earlier point. Several ethnographic studies suggest that family conflict and child victimization in the home may have greater importance as risk factors for gang membership for girls than for boys (Fleisher, 1998; Moore and Hagedorn, 2001). Teenage fatherhood may predict gang membership (Loeber, Farrington, Stouthamer-Loeber, et al., 2003).
Early involvement in delinquency and violent behavior in the Seattle study and delinquency involvement in early adolescence in the Rochester study predicted gang membership. Both of these studies also show that the risk of gang involvement is elevated for youngsters who use alcohol or drugs and are involved in other forms of delinquency and who hold antisocial or delinquent beliefs (Hill et al., 1999; Thornberry, Krohn, et al., 2003). Experiencing life stressors is another important individual risk factor at the early adolescence stage (Eitle et al., 2004; Thornberry, Krohn, et al., 2003). Violent victimization, involvement in violence, and aggression are predictors of gang membership (Craig et al., 2002; Hill et al., 1999; Lahey et al., 1999; Taylor, Freng, Esbensen, et al., 2008).
Poor school performance on math tests predicts gang membership for males (Thornberry, Krohn, et al., 2003). Other school risk factors identified in the Rochester study include low academic aspirations, low attachment to teachers, low parent college expectations for their child, and low degree of commitment to school. Negative labeling by teachers (as either bad or disturbed) is another important predictor (Esbensen et al., 1993). Suspensions and explusions from school often mean that students are removed from adult supervision and, in turn, are exposed to greater association with delinquent peers, which can increase delinquency (Hemphill, Toumborou, Herrenkohl, et al., 2006). Delinquency involvement can increase gang membership and court referral (Esbensen and Huizinga, 1993; Hill et al., 1999; Thornberry, Krohn, et al., 2003). Students who feel vulnerable at school may seek protection in the gang (Gottfredson and Gottfredson, 2001).
Studies show that association with delinquent or antisocial peers and aggressive peers during childhood and early adolescence is a predictor of gang membership. Aggressive and antisocial youths begin to affiliate with one another in childhood (Cairns and Cairns, 1991), and this pattern of aggressive friendships may continue through adolescence (Cairns and Cairns, 1994). A Montreal study suggests that displays of aggression in delinquent acts at age 10 or perhaps younger may be a key factor leading to gang involvement (Craig et al., 2002). Associations with delinquent peers increase delinquency and the likelihood and frequency of physical aggression and violence (Lacourse et al., 2006), which in turn increases the likelihood of gang membership in early adolescence (Craig et al., 2002; Eitle, Gunkel, and Gundy, 2004; Hill et al., 1999). Weakened prosocial bonds as a result of delinquency may be an important interaction effect of this process (Thornberry and Krohn, 2001).
Community or neighborhood risk factors that have been shown to predict gang membership in early adolescence include availability and perceived access to drugs, neighborhood youth in trouble, feeling unsafe in the neighborhood, and low neighborhood attachment (Hill, Howell, Hawkins, et al., 1999; Hill, Lui, and Hawkins, 2001). Other important neighborhood risk factors include high community arrest rates, high drug use, and neighborhood disorganization. Availability of firearms may also be an important community variable (Lizotte, Krohn, Howell, et al., 2000). Exposure to firearm violence approximately doubles the probability that an adolescent will perpetrate serious violence over the subsequent two years (Bingenheimer, Brennan, and Earls, 2005). Communities that suffer from concentrated disadvantage may lack the necessary “collective efficacy” (informal control and social cohesion) among residents to ameliorate the negative effects of concentrated disadvantage (Morenoff, Sampson, and Raudenbush, 2001; Sampson and Laub, 1997). This condition is probably exacerbated by the prevalence of crime in the community, availability of drugs, and so on, which all weaken neighborhood attachment.
Risk factors have a cumulative impact; that is, the greater the numbers of risk factors that are present, the greater the likelihood of gang involvement. Hill et al. (1999) found in the Seattle study that children with seven or more risk factor indicators were 13 times more likely to join a gang than children with none or only one risk factor indicator. Nevertheless, only 32 percent of these youths joined a gang.
The presence of a large number of risk factors in multiple developmental domains appears to increase the likelihood of gang involvement even more. Rochester researchers investigated the predictive power of risk factors in multiple domains (Thornberry et al., 2003), finding that a majority (61 percent) of the boys and 40 percent of the girls who scored above the median in seven risk factor domains (area characteristics, family sociodemographic characteristics, parent-child relations, school, peers, individual characteristics, and early delinquency) were gang members. In contrast, approximately one-third of the boys and one-fifth of the girls who experienced risk in four to six domains joined a gang. Another study found that it is the accumulation of more risk factors that leads youths to become gang-involved as opposed to violence-involved (52 percent of gang members experienced 11 or more risk factors, compared to 36 percent of violent offenders) (Esbensen, Peterson, Taylor, and Freng, 2009). Put otherwise, “a greater number of risk factors is required to achieve the same odds of gang membership as of violent offending; that is, it takes a greater push for youths to become gang-involved than violence-involved” (p. 18). Thus, for optimal impact, gang prevention and intervention programs not only need to address multiple risk factors, they also need to address a number of risk factors in multiple developmental domains.
Protective factors are not included in this Strategic Planning Tool because research on their effects on gang membership, and delinquency as well, is yet in its infancy. In general, research on protective factors has been slower to develop than research on risk factors in large part because of conceptual and research issues (Stouthamer-Loeber, Loeber, Stallings, et al., 2008; Stouthamer-Loeber, Loeber, Wei, et al., 2002), including ambiguity about variables that are associated with better and worse outcomes within high-risk groups and use of the term in inconsistent ways. Although numerous possible protective factors have been suggested in the gang literature, the research base in this area is far too scant at this time (largely consisting of inferences drawn from risk factor studies) to compile a “research-supported” list of protective factors; hence, protective factors are not incorporated into the Strategic Planning Tool at this time.
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