Youth often report joining a gang for protection. However, as numerous research studies have shown, the risk and rate of victimization, especially violent victimization, increases substantially while youth are in a gang. This finding is notably similar to that of the increase in the criminal offending rate during periods of active gang membership. Thus, there is a seemingly paradoxical relationship between the expectation that joining a gang will provide protection from violence and the fact that actual rate (and risk) of victimization while in a gang increases. Research specifically examining this issue points to a compelling explanation: Given the “choice” between seemingly random acts of street violence when not in a gang versus the more structured and less random acts within the gang culture (including the sense of group protection that being part of a gang engenders), individuals are more likely to choose to belong to a gang. That is, the source of the risk of violence is qualitatively different (e.g., from a rival gang) while in a gang, which individuals cognitively perceive as being more predictable and manageable, and thus preferable. This explanation is important to consider when developing effective interventions with current gang members, since increased levels of neighborhood street violence may counteract incentives for individuals to leave the gang.
Following individuals over time (i.e., longitudinally) has also afforded researchers the opportunity to examine the long-term consequences of gang membership. The effects of gang membership, especially for members who remained in the gang for longer periods and/or were deeply embedded in the gang life, have been shown to negatively impact individuals well after leaving the gang. Some of the negative outcomes linked to prolonged gang membership include dropping out of school, early parenthood, and lack of or unstable employment. These long-term consequences are supplemental to the increased risk of being arrested, having a criminal record, and incarceration—which stems from the increased involvement in criminal offending while in a gang—which further reduces the probability of a successful transition from adolescence to adulthood. Further, in a recent study specifically examining this issue, researchers found that adolescent gang membership was linked to other public health issues, such as alcohol and drug abuse and/or dependence, poor general health, and poor mental health during adulthood. Thus, gang membership, especially long-term membership and/or increased embeddedness in the gang, exacts a toll that extends far beyond periods of active membership.