Gang Prevention: An Overview of Research and Programs

Since the mid-20th century, gang violence in this country has become widespread—all 50 states and the District of Columbia report gang problems, and reports have increased for 5 of the past 7 years. Despite the steady growth in the number and size of gangs across the United States and the criminal behavior and violence they spawn, little is known about the dynamics that drive gangs and how to best combat their growth. For instance, no consensus exists on how gangs form, and few gang prevention programs have been rigorously evaluated. The recent Juvenile Justice bulletin (PDF, 24 Pages), published by the U.S. Dept. of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Programs (OJJDP), presents a compilation of current research on gangs, including data on the state of gang problems in the United States today, why youth join gangs, the risk factors and attractions that increase youth’s propensity to join gangs, and how gangs form. The author examines how community members can begin to assess their gang problems and provide necessary enhancements to prevention and intervention activities. The bulletin also describes a number of effective and promising programs that may help prevent youth delinquency and gang violence.

The following are some key findings:

  • Youth join gangs for protection, enjoyment, respect, money, or because a friend is in a gang.
  • Youth are at higher risk of joining a gang if they engage in delinquent behaviors, are aggressive or violent, experience multiple caretaker transitions, have many problems at school, associate with other gang-involved youth, or live in communities where they feel unsafe and where many youth are in trouble.
  • To prevent youth from joining gangs, communities must strengthen families and schools, improve community supervision, train teachers and parents to manage disruptive youth, and teach students interpersonal skills.

No programs have been developed specifically to prevent gangs from emerging. In the meantime, to prevent youth from joining gangs, communities must employ multiple strategies and services, including:

  • Addressing elevated risk factors for joining a gang.
  • Strengthening families.
  • Reducing youth’s conflicts.
  • Improving community-level supervision of youth.
  • Providing training for teachers on how to manage disruptive students.
  • Providing training for parents of disruptive and delinquent youth.
  • Reviewing and softening school “zero tolerance” policies to reduce suspensions and expulsions.
  • Ensuring that punitive sanctions target delinquent gang behaviors, not gang apparel, signs, and symbols.
  • Providing tutoring for students who are performing poorly in school.
  • Increasing adult supervision of students after school.
  • Providing interpersonal skills training to students to help resolve conflicts.
  • Providing a center for youth recreation and referrals for services.
  • Providing gang awareness training for school personnel, parents, and students.
  • Teaching students that gangs can be dangerous.
  • Providing training for school resource officers in mediating conflicts.

A balance of prevention, intervention, and suppression strategies is important for success in any community. Prevention programs target youth at risk of gang involvement and help reduce the number of youth who join gangs. Intervention programs and strategies provide sanctions and services for younger youth who are actively involved in gangs to push them away from gangs. Law enforcement suppression strategies and intensive services target and rehabilitate the most violent gangs and older, criminally active gang members.

For more information about why youths join gangs and gang prevention strategies, the bulletin is available in full (PDF, 24 Pages).

Guides for assessing community gang problems and implementing intervention and prevention strategies, part of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s Comprehensive Gang Model, are available on the National Gang Center Web site.

Learn about six communities and their innovative strategies to address youth violence.