Incarceration Prolongs Gang Careers, Researchers Say

“Blood In, Blood Out.”

So goes a common saying about the inescapability of gang life, a reference to a 1993 movie that chronicled the bloody lives of three gangsters in East Los Angeles.

In fact, leaving gangs is quite common. According to the National Gang Center, a Justice Department-funded research project, the majority of youth who join gangs remain active for one to two years. Fewer than one in 10 stays involved for four or more years. 

As the Trump administration cracks down on the violent street gang MS-13, experts say a significant law enforcement response to the gang’s violence is warranted. But there is a downside to the relentless drive to lock up gang members, said University of Colorado sociologist David Pyrooz. 

“These guys aren’t going to be in MS-13 in 10, 20, 30 years from now unless they’re incarcerated,” said Pyrooz, who has studied gangs for over 10 years. “When people are incarcerated, it prolongs their gang careers.” 

Likely to return

Of the more than 800,000 gang members in the United States, more than a quarter are behind bars. While incarceration can lead some members to leave gangs, recidivism among them is exceedingly high. A 2009 Arizona study showed that gang members were twice as likely to return to prison for a new crime as non-gang members.

There are no reliable data on people who leave gangs. Until recently the reasons for joining gangs were better understood than the reasons for leaving them. But a major 2017 study of gang leaving by Pyrooz and two other researchers helped address the gap in knowledge, providing critical insights that some practitioners say can help reduce membership in gangs such as MS-13. 

The researchers examined three recent studies of gang leaving to identify patterns of disengagement. The studies looked at 784 former gang members from 13 U.S. cities. Their goal was “to identify how the key research findings can contribute to the ways that such programs can facilitate gang leaving,” the authors wrote on the Crime Report website last October.   

3 key findings

First, leaving a gang is often “the result of multiple rather than single factors.” For example, a member leaves a gang not simply because of the pregnancy of his wife but because of the pregnancy and getting a job. One life event is often not enough motivation.

Second, the most frequently cited reason for leaving was disillusionment, followed by victimization of the gang member or a relative or friend. While most respondents cited both so-called push factors (victimization) and pull factors (getting a job), push factors were most prevalent. 

Finally, the researchers found that motivations to leave a gang vary between juveniles and adults. While youngsters can quickly grow out of gang life as they develop other interests, older members are more deeply entrenched and need greater support to transition out.

Based on these findings, the researchers recommended supporting a number of programs and strategies such as hospital-based intervention and street outreach efforts. 

“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,” the researchers wrote.

Hard, dangerous to leave

Michelle Young, a consultant who works with communities in North Carolina on gang issues, said knowing why members leave gangs is important for practitioners and policymakers.

The study’s findings “can help shape our programmatic responses to gangs, can help inform people who are in the trenches working with gangs,” she said. They can “also help policymakers think about the types of resources that need to be available to young people to help them transition out.”

Leaving a gang can be risky and even fatal. Last year, a Long Island teenager was executed by MS-13 members after turning his back on the gang over the brutal slayings of three young girls.

But the danger of leaving gangs has always been overstated, said Young, who has worked with gangs for more than 20 years. 

“There have always been people leaving gangs,” she said. “The ramifications for leaving gangs, especially if you’re young and adolescent, are relatively minor.”

MS-13 members are no different, she said. 

“A lot of whether a young person decides to leave doesn’t have so much to do with the particular gang they’re involved in as it does with their level of involvement and the availability of other, more positive options,” she said. 

‘A better deal’

Luis Cardona, a former gang member who heads the Positive Youth Development Initiative for Montgomery County, Maryland, said programs of the kind recommended by the researchers can only succeed when there is a parallel system of support within communities in which gang members live. 

“It’s not one program solely,” he said. “There is a variety of things that need to happen.

“If you truly want to change the paradigm on the gang subculture, then it’s critical to offer the membership a better deal than what they believe they may be getting in the gang life,” Cardona said. 

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