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Gang Victimization Realities

​AN ESTIMATED 731,000 kids belong to about 28,100 gangs around the United States, according to U.S. Justice Department statistics. Many youths and even adults join gangs because they think the membership will offer them some level of protection. However, research is proving that assumption to be wrong. In reality, gang members are far more likely to be victimized than other members of the population, oftentimes by their fellow gang members.

One study coauthored by Kathleen Fox, assistant professor at Sam Houston State University, looks at victimization rates against adult prison inhabitants who are members of prison gangs. “One of our key findings was to determine that gang members actually reported being victimized significantly more than non-gang members by almost every type of crime that we asked about,” says Fox. The same held true for jail inmates.

Fox’s studies are among many in recent years that validate earlier findings by Terrance J. Taylor, assistant professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Taylor says that when he first published a study showing that gang members faced more victimization than the general public, the report encountered opposition within the research community. “There is a common belief that someone’s going to have your back if you’re in a gang,” says Taylor.

Taylor thinks that members are more frequently victimized because violence is “an important aspect of gang membership.” For gangs, violence is “one of the defining features of their group membership,” says Taylor.

Taylor also thinks that some youth joining gangs, particularly females, know the truth. But, he says, they join anyway because being a victim is not a factor in their decision making. They face victimization from family and friends in their environment, with or without joining a gang. “They’d much rather be victimized in something that they have control over as opposed to something that they don’t have any control over,” says Taylor.

Still, perhaps if more potential gang members realized before joining that they weren’t getting into the protective situation that they believed the gang would provide, maybe they wouldn’t join.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has an anti-gang Web site that highlights some efforts to combat the problem around the country.