Gang Membership, Delinquent Peers, and Delinquent Behavior

Sara R. Battin-Pearson, Terence P. Thornberry, J. David Hawkins, and Marvin D. Krohn

The proliferation of youth gangs since 1980 has fueled the public's fear and magnified possible misconceptions about youth gangs. To address the mounting concern about youth gangs, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention's (OJJDP's) Youth Gang Series delves into many of the key issues related to youth gangs. The series considers issues such as gang migration, gang growth, female involvement with gangs, homicide, drugs and violence, and the needs of communities and youth who live in the presence of youth gangs.

Gang membership intensifies delinquent behavior. From the earliest to the most recent investigations, criminologists have consistently found that, when compared with youth who do not belong to gangs, gang members arefar more involved in delinquency, especially serious and violent delinquency. Associating with delinquent peers also contributes to delinquency. Indeed, peer delinquency is one of the strongest predictors of delinquency that researchers have identified. However, the effect of belonging to a gang has not been separated from the effect of simply associating with delinquent peers.

Some gang researchers have suggested that gang membership constitutes a qualitatively different experience than merely associating with delinquent peer groups. For example, Moore states that "...gangs are no longer just at the rowdy end of the continuum of local adolescent groups -- they are now really outside that continuum" (1991:132). Klein makes a similar point: "...street gangs are something special, something qualitatively different from other groups and from other categories of law breakers" (1995:197). Although these and other researchers view gangs as "qualitatively different," until recently no study had attempted to disentangle the influence of gang membership from the effects of delinquent peers on involvement in delinquency.

In 1997, studies conducted by the Seattle Social Development Project and the Rochester Youth Development Study with funding from OJJDP both answered the question, "Does gang membership contribute to delinquency above and beyond the influence of associating with delinquent peers?" Findings from the two studies are presented in this Bulletin.

    The Results from the Seattle Social Developement Project reported in this bulletin were originally published in Criminology 36 (1):93-115, 1998, American Society of Criminology.

Gang Membership, Delinquent Peers, and Delinquent Behavior Juvenile Justice Bulletin   ·  October 1998