Disengaging From Gang Life: What Works?

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Photo by GUV'NOR via flickr

How can the research on gang-leaving improve gang intervention and help practitioners?

With over 30,000 gangs in the U.S. and over 800,000 members, gangs represent a serious concern for schools, families, cities, and the nation. Gang membership clearly enhances criminal involvement, increasing both the frequency and seriousness of offending and victimization.

Years of research on testing interventions seem to suggest that very little beyond incarceration can be done when youth are already embedded in a gang.

Scott Decker

Scott Decker

Nearly three decades of research about gang intervention and gang behavior have not yielded sufficient knowledge about how best to terminate gang membership. The lack of knowledge about effective gang intervention is due to many reasons, including the scarcity of sound programs with a logic model to evaluate, difficulty conducting rigorous evaluations, and a disconnect between studies that examine the motivations and correlates of gang-leaving— but do not explicitly link the findings to on-the-ground practices and programs.

To address this quandary, we drew together the key findings from three large multi-site studies of gang leaving (or disengagement, as it is sometimes called) and applied them to promising gang programs.

The goal of our recent study published in the Journal of Crime and Justice was to identify how the key research findings can contribute to the ways that such programs can facilitate gang leaving. The separate research projects together included 784 former gang members from 13 cities.

Three findings stand out across the studies. First, disengaging from the gang was the result of multiple rather than single factors. Individuals who successfully left their gang didn’t do so based on one reason, such as the pregnancy of a wife or girlfriend, or after arrest or imprisonment. Rather, multiple factors (including pregnancy plus getting a job, or moving plus enrolling in a GED program) were more strongly associated with gang disengagement.

The factors or “motivations” for gang leaving can be classified as pushes or pulls. Push factors are internal to the gang and often suggest a negative action—such as getting shot or injured, arrested and incarcerated, or simply growing tired of the gang life.

Pull factors can be viewed as potentially prosocial opportunities and include things like getting a job or moving to a new neighborhood or city.

Over three-quarters of gang members in two of the three studies reported both push and pull factors in reasons for leaving. In the third study, where the average age of the gang member was much younger, almost half reported both push and pull factors

Second, push factors include disillusionment with the gang (e.g. “it wasn’t what I thought it would be,” “the gang did something I didn’t like,” “I grew out of the lifestyle”) were the most salient factors reported by gang members across all studies. Another push factor, victimization (of the gang member or a close friend or family member), was reported by a third or more of gang members in each of the studies as a key reason for disengaging from their gang.

Caterina Roman

Caterina Roman

Based on these findings, our advice is to leverage pull factors when push factors are heightened, and vice-versa. We suggest the timing may be critical.

For example, immediately after a gang member is shot or arrested (push factors), interventions that emphasizes pull-factor opportunities may be more successful than interventions that are implemented later.

Likewise, after finding a new job or having a baby, an intervention that emphasizes focused-deterrence messaging may be more likely to encourage leaving.

Finally, the motivations to leave a gang appear to change over the life course. These motivations are age-graded and increase in complexity with age. Many younger gang members—most of them still juveniles at gang exit—told the researchers that they just grew out of the gang and developed other friendships or interests.

Leaving the gang was not so straightforward for older gang members. Many of them had many years of involvement and were more deeply embedded in their gangs. Most of the older gang members clearly needed the pulls and the pushes to work together to lead to their exit.

Based on these findings, we recommend the following interventions: street outreach, therapeutic programming, building family support systems and parenting skills.

Looking across the research literature of promising interventions, we believe a number of strategies and programs fit the bill and are worthy of expansion, investment, and further testing to assess crime reduction outcomes:

  • Hospital-based interventions such as Healing Hurt People (Philadelphia)) or Cure Violence.
  • Focused Deterrence strategies/Group Violence Intervention.
  • Fatherhood programs such as the National Fatherhood Initiative’s InsideOut Dad® program.
  • Family-based therapeutic interventions such as FFT and MST, although the jury is still out on whether these well-respected programs would work with gang members.
  • Neighborhood-based comprehensive case management programs (Cure Violence) that address the multiple needs of individuals but simultaneously work to change community norms that support violence.

Although we don’t discuss in our study the larger multi-component programs like the Comprehensive Gang Model, we do believe that with careful attention to targeting the right individuals and matching the services to the needs is of great importance. The case review process—where multiple stakeholders familiar with the gang-involved individual work together to deliver to most appropriate services—is a key feature of the Comprehensive Gang Model.

David Pyrooz

David Pyrooz

Success is not simply crime reduction. After all, that could be achieved by locking up the most active gang members.

Success is helping to re-route the lives of these youth and young adults toward prosocial paths that will result in sustainable improvements in individual welfare and community health. Gang programming should identify and address the needs of individuals disillusioned with their gang and offer sustained opportunities to engage in prosocial networks and relationships. Engagement in prosocial activities translates to a number of different gang interventions.

Gang membership waxes and wanes, even for the most embedded gang members. Finding times when they are vulnerable (after the death of an individual they were close to, being shot, learning of pending parenthood) to provide interventions is almost as important as the intervention itself.

We believe that the knowledge gained from the disengagement research about the importance of multiple factors in disengagement, leveraging both the pushes and pulls, and that older members require greater social supports and opportunities is useful for practitioners.

These findings can be generalized across a variety of programs. In addition, they can be integrated into a variety of gang intervention programs with the explicit goal of beginning or enhancing the process of disengaging from a gang.

Such disengagement pays dividends in reduced crime as well as increased prosocial involvement.


CDC/NIJ Changing Course

COPS Guidebook

Colorado Blueprints

Scott H. Decker, PhD, is Foundation Professor of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and Director of the Center for Public Criminology at Arizona State University (ASU). 

Caterina Roman, PhD, is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Temple University. David Pyrooz, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Faculty Associate in the Institute for Behavioral Study at the University of Colorado. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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