Juvenile offenders are more likely to leave a gang than join one while incarcerated, according to a surprising, first-of-its kind study by CU Boulder criminologist David Pyrooz.
The study, published in the journal Criminology this month, looked at 1,336 adolescents in Phoenix and Philadelphia followed over 7 years via interviews and surveys before, during, and after their time behind bars. It is among the first to explore the impacts of incarceration on gang dynamics.
It also found that gang membership is highly durable, with members bringing their affiliations into the correctional system from the street and taking it with them when released.
“This study suggests that there is probably not as much gang-joining happening in prison as we once thought, and that a lot of the problems are originating on the street and being brought into the system only to be further exacerbated by the institutional environment,” said Pyrooz, an assistant professor of sociology at CU Boulder’s Institute for Behavioral Science.
One potential takeaway for prison administrators: There may exist a key window of opportunity, as a street gang member enters jail, to sway him or her to leave the gang for good, said Pyrooz.
Researchers have long known that gang members are overrepresented in correctional institutes, with rates of gang membership among the incarcerated anywhere from 25 to 50 times higher than rates among the non-incarcerated population. One study found that 47 percent of juvenile inmates belong to a gang. Among the general population that number hovers around 2 percent.
Conventional wisdom has held that prisons are a breeding ground for gangs. But others have suggested that gang members are simply more likely to end up in jail.
Prior to Pyrooz’s new paper, no longitudinal study existed.
“Prison is the final frontier for studying gangs. There is just not a lot of research out there,” he said. “For obvious reasons, it is hard to gain access to prisons, but even once you are in, then it is believed that the gangs will not talk to you.”
To explore the link between incarceration and gang membership, Pyrooz and co-authors from the University of Wisconsin and University of Arkansas analyzed data from Pathways to Disistance, a longitudinal study of youth age 14 to 17 convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanor. Researchers had interviewed participants prior to their first court hearing and again 10 more times, collecting data over seven years.
Eighty percent of the participants were incarcerated at some point during the study. Pyrooz compared the gang status of participants before, during, and after periods of incarceration in juvenile facilities, jails, and prisons.
Several notable findings emerged:
In Phoenix, 23 percent of those who belonged to a gang before being incarcerated no longer claimed gang membership when behind bars. Meanwhile, only 5 percent of youth who were not in gangs joined a gang while in incarcerated.
Similar trends held true in Philadelphia, with 27 percent of those belonging to a gang leaving it while imprisoned. In all only 9 individuals, less than 2 percent, joined a gang while incarcerated.
“That number is exceptionally low and very surprising,” says Pyrooz. “It suggests people are not becoming infected inside the system as once thought.
He notes that gang membership can have life-long consequences, with gang members more likely to drop out of school, and less likely to go to college or get a job. Gang members are also over 100 times more likely to be a victim of homicide.
He can’t say for sure why so many youth opt to leave a gang when entering jail or prison.
“We do know that at certain times (such as after a stabbing or shooting on the street) gang members reach a crystallization of discontent where they no longer want the lifestyle anymore and they are willing to do what it takes to put it behind them.” Entering prison could be one of those times.
He notes that a few rare prison programs now offer gang members an opportunity to renounce their gang involvement at intake. “I think it’s a great idea.”
Notably the study also found that Philadelphia participants were far less likely to be in a gang than those in Phoenix, with just 10 percent belonging to a gang versus 35 percent in Phoenix.
Phoenix and Philadelphia are considered among the top 10 cities in the nation for gang activity.