Risk Factors

Review of Risk and Protective Factors for Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Gang Involvement

The following discussion of risk factors for gang involvement first addresses why youth join gangs. This choice is influenced by factors that attract youth to gangs and also forces that push youth toward gangs. Protective factors either buffer youth from exposure to risk factors or diminish their harmful effects.

Why Youth Join Gangs

When youth make a conscious choice to join a gang during childhood or adolescence, multiple personal and environmental factors typically influence this decision (for a broad overview of this process, view the NGC online video at www.nationalgangcenter.gov, “Why Youth Join Gangs”). Factors that contribute to a youth’s decision to join a gang fall into two categories: Youth may be “pulled” and/or “pushed” into gang membership (see FAQ number 13 at www.nationalgangcenter.gov, What are risk factors for gang membership?). Pulls are features that attract youth. Gangs are often at the center of appealing social action—parties, hanging out, music, drugs, and opportunities to socialize with members of the opposite sex. In other words, a gang may be appealing because it meets a youth’s social needs.

Risk Factors for Gang Joining

Risk factors predict increased risk for developing a problem or disorder. In the context of gangs, risk factors are forces that push youth toward gangs or increase the likelihood that affected youth will join a gang. Researchers cannot predict whether a particular individual will join a gang. Rather, research shows that individuals who possess certain risk factors have an elevated chance of joining a gang. Gang research has identified several ways in which risk factors increase the likelihood of gang membership.

  • These risk factors span all five social development sectors (family, peer group, school, individual characteristics, and community conditions) (Howell and Egley, 2005).
  • There are no risk factors that uniquely predict a high probability of gang membership (Decker, Melde, and Pyrooz, 2013; Krohn and Thornberry, 2008). The same factors that predict gang membership also predict other problem behaviors (see Esbensen, Peterson, Taylor, and Freng, 2009).
  • The greater the number of risk factors that youth experience, the greater the likelihood of gang involvement. In a Seattle study, elementary school children exposed to 7 or more of 19 measured risk factors were 13 times more likely to join a gang than children exposed to none or to only one risk factor (Hill, Howell, Hawkins et al., 1999).
  • The presence of risk factors in multiple developmental domains produces the greatest risk of gang membership (Thornberry, Krohn, Lizotte et al., 2003).
  • Key risk factors remain potent throughout adolescence (Gilman, Hill, Hawkins et al., 2014).

Risk Factors for Various Demographic Groups

As a general rule, risk factors apply to minorities and nonminorities alike and to both girls and boys. However, far more research has been conducted on males than on females, and females evidence several unique risk factors (Chesney-Lind, 2013; Petersen and Howell, 2013; Peterson, 2012; Peterson and Morgan, 2014). See FAQ number 12 at www.nationalgangcenter.gov on the topic of increasing female gang involvement.

  • Violent family environments have been consistently identified among predictors of female gang involvement, including parental substance use, domestic violence, and child physical and sexual abuse (Peterson, 2012).
  • Early dating is a key risk factor for gang joining among girls (Thornberry, et al., 2003).
  • School-related problems such as academic failure, low educational aspirations, negative labeling, and trouble at school are key risk factors for gang joining among girls, and these may be more influential for them than for boys (Peterson, 2012; Thornberry, et al., 2003).
  • In addition, school safety concerns are a major factor leading to gang involvement among youth of both genders (Gottfredson, 2013), perhaps particularly for girls (Bell, 2009).

Protective Factors

A key finding is that youth need more than a simple majority of protective factors to overcome multiple risk factors (Stouthamer-Loeber, Loeber, Stallings, and Lacourse, 2008). Just one longitudinal study has been conducted to date on protective factors for gang involvement. This study found research support for protective factors in each of the five major developmental sectors of youths’ lives, from the 5th to 12th grades: prosocial family, school, neighborhood, and peer environments, and individual characteristics (Gilman, Hill, Hawkins, et al., 2014). Positive family and school environments appeared to operate through other domains, mainly peers and neighborhoods. In the family context, not living with a gang member was a key protective factor. Interestingly, these protective factors did not lose potency with age. There is some evidence that from mid-adolescence onward, broad categories of protective factors can reduce the incidence of violence (including gang fighting and gun carrying):

  • Cumulative protection across domains
  • Cumulative protection in the family domain
  • Educational aspirations and self-esteem in the individual domain
  • Parental supervision and parent/partner status in the family domain

Notably, the research suggested that increasing the level of positive feelings youth have for themselves and their parents, and empowering parents to better supervise teenagers’ behavior and choice of friends, are important protective factors (Krohn, Lizotte, Bushway, et al., 2014). There also is strong research support for other protective factors that buffer youth against overall violence that have been identified for the five developmental sectors of adolescents (Howell, Lipsey, and Wilson, 2014, pp. 21–22). For example, in the school domain, key protective factors are school achievement, bonding to school, a positive school climate, and others. In general, the wide array of research-supported protective factors against violence likely applies to gang members because this group and violent adolescents have many risk factors in common.



Bell, K. E. (2009). Gender and gangs: A quantitative comparison. Crime and Delinquency, 55, 363–387.

Chesney-Lind, M. (2013). How can we prevent girls from joining gangs? In T. R. Simon, N. M. Ritter, and R. R. Mahendra (eds.), Changing course: Preventing gang membership (pp. 121–133). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Decker, S. H., Melde, C., and Pyrooz, D. C. (2013). What do we know about gangs and gang members and where do we go from here? Justice Quarterly, 30, 369–402.

Esbensen, F. A., Peterson, D., Taylor, T. J., and Freng, A. (2009). Similarities and differences in risk factors for violent offending and gang membership. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 42, 310–335.

Gilman, A. B., Hill, K. G., Hawkins, J. D., Howell, J. C., and Kosterman, R. (2014). The developmental dynamics of joining a gang in adolescence: Patterns and predictors of gang membership. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 24, 204–219.

Gottfredson, G. D. (2013). What can schools do to help prevent gang joining? In T. R. Simon, N. M. Ritter, and R. R. Mahendra (eds.). Changing course: Preventing gang membership (pp. 89–104). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Hill, K. G., Howell, J. C., Hawkins, J. D., and Battin-Pearson, S. R. (1999). Childhood risk factors for adolescent gang membership: Results from the Seattle Social Development Project. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 36, 300–322.

Howell, J. C. and Egley, A. Jr. (2005). Moving risk factors into developmental theories of gang membership. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 3, 334–354.

———, Lipsey, M. W., and Wilson, J. J. (2014). A handbook for evidence-based juvenile justice systems. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Krohn, M. D., Lizotte, A. J., Bushway, S. D., Schmidt, N. M., and Phillips, M. D. (2014). Shelter during the storm: A search for factors that protect at-risk adolescents from violence. Crime & Delinquency, 60, 379–401.

——— and Thornberry, T. P. (2008). Longitudinal perspectives on adolescent street gangs. In A. Liberman (eds.). The long view of crime: A synthesis of longitudinal research (pp. 128–160). New York: Springer.

Petersen, R. D. and Howell, J. C. (2013). Program approaches for girls in gangs: Female specific or gender neutral? Criminal Justice Review, 38, 491–509.

Peterson, D. (2012). Girlfriends, gun-holders, and ghetto-rats? Moving beyond narrow views of girls in gangs. In S. Miller, L. D. Leve, and P. K. Kerig (eds.). Delinquent girls: Contexts, relationships, and adaptation (pp. 71–84). New York: Springer.

——— and Morgan, K. A. (2014). Sex differences and the overlap in youths’ risk factors for onset of violence and gang involvement. Journal of Crime and Justice, 37, 129–154.

Stouthamer-Loeber, M., Loeber, R., Stallings, R., and Lacourse, E. (2008). Desistance from and persistence in offending. In R. Loeber, D. P. Farrington, M. Stouthamer-Loeber, and H. R. White. Violence and serious theft: Development and prediction from childhood to adulthood (pp. 269–306). New York: Routledge.

Thornberry, T. P., Krohn, M. D., Lizotte, A. J., Smith, C. A., and Tobin, K. (2003). Gangs and delinquency in developmental perspective. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

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