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Risk & Protective Factors

The risk and protective factors of youth gang involvement can span multiple domains from the individual level (aggressiveness) to the peer (delinquent siblings), school (academic failure), and community levels (poverty). Risk factors encourage or increase the likelihood of youth participating in gangs; whereas a protective factor acts as a buffer in the presence of risk factors. Proper assessment of risk and protective factors for youth and gang involvement helps to inform the development and implementation of prevention and intervention strategies.1

Most youth who become affiliated with gangs lack positive supports from parents, schools, peers, and community.2 Research also indicates a close link between gang involvement and delinquent activity such as substance use. Findings indicate that youth who engage in delinquent activities, specifically illicit alcohol and drug use, are more likely to join gangs and that, as a result of gang involvement, youth are more likely to use illicit drugs and alcohol.3

Risk factors that significantly affect a youth’s chance for gang-involvement include the following:

  • Aggressiveness,
  • Early initiation of violent behavior,
  • Parental criminality,
  • Child maltreatment,
  • Low levels of parental involvement,
  • Parent-child separation,
  • Academic failure,
  • Lack of school connectedness,
  • Truancy and school dropout,
  • Frequent school transitions,
  • Delinquent siblings and peers,
  • Peer gang membership,
  • Poverty,
  • Substance use (e.g. illicit drugs and alcohol),
  • Community disorganization,
  • Availability of drugs and firearms, and
  • Exposure to violence and racial prejudice.4

Research suggests that the greater the number of risk factors that a youth experiences, the more likely he or she is to join a gang.5 It also shows that a youth’s risk for gang involvement significantly increases as he or she accrues more than two risk factors.6 Therefore, prevention programs that target risk factors can help mitigate youth gang involvement. Additionally, efforts to minimize youth gang involvement can be addressed through promoting protective factors. Research suggests that as youth accumulate more protective factors it lowers the risk of gang involvement.7

Protective factors that have been identified as influential to youth gang involvement include:

  • Parental involvement and monitoring,
  • Family support,
  • Coping skills (interpersonal skills),
  • Positive social connections,
  • Peer support,
  • Academic achievement, and
  • Reducing delinquency, alcohol, and drug use.8


Risk and Protective Factors Data Tool
This strategic planning tool developed by the OJJDP helps communities  assess the severity of their gang problems and plan their responses. The tools provided include: a community resource inventory to record community assets such as programs and services; planning and implementation questions to help assess what prevention and intervention programs match with their needs; descriptions of risk factors categorized by age and domain (individual, family, etc.); and a program matrix that lists appropriate programs and their descriptions.

Predictors of Youth Violence (PDF, 12 pages)
This Juvenile Justice Bulletin from the OJJDP gives a comprehensive discussion of risk factors for youth violence, including gang membership, across the domains of individual, family, school, peer, and community factors. The Bulletin also gives a brief overview of a study that looked at predictors of violent or serious delinquency by age group and includes a discussion of what the results mean for implementing interventions and appropriately using the identified risk factors.

1 Hawkins et al., 2000; National Gang Center, 2012
2 National Gang Center, 2012
3 McDaniel, 2012
4 McDaniel, 2012; Hill, Howell, Hawkins, & Battin-Pearson, 1999
5 Hill et al., 1999
6 Thornberry, Krohn, Lizotte, Smith, & Tobin, 2003; Hawkins et al., 2000
7 Thornberry et al., 2003; Hawkins et al., 2000
8 McDaniel, 2012; Hill et al., 1999

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