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Gang Involvement and Victimization



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Gang Involvement and Victimization


Gang involvement is a gradual process that is influenced by an individual’s trajectory of life and familial, individual, and social experiences. Therefore, gang participation is considered illegal under particular circumstances, and can therefore be defined as a group of three or more individuals whose main activity includes engaging in certain criminal activities (Augustyn et al., 2017). Gang involvement starts at an early age which makes youth and school children the most probable candidates for gang membership. Reports of gang existence in schools started appearing in the 1970s and 1980. However, it is indicated that the prevalence of gangs in learning institutions has been decreasing since the 1990s, evident from the reported 12% gang presence in schools in 2013 down from 28% in 1995 (Carson & Esbensen, 2019). Despite the apparent decrease, gang involvement in schools remains a serious issue among policymakers and school officials since gang membership is associated with a myriad of disruptive acts and safety issues. The prevalence of gangs is connected to serious school-based violence/delinquency such as substance abuse, high-risk sexual behavior, and drug trafficking that can result in arrests, incarcerations, and augmented risk of experiencing violent victimization (Carson & Esbensen, 2019). This paper, therefore, intends to provide a better understanding of gang involvement and victimization as well as how the former increases the risk of the latter. Victimization can be understood as the act of rendering individuals victims through harming or killing them. Therefore, gang members engage in risky lifestyles such as drug dealing as well as involvement with gang-motivated crimes that increase the risk of becoming a victim of serious violence (Leverso & O’Neill, 2021). As such, this research will provide an overview of the debate about whether gang involvement increases victimization risk and outline the prior literature that has investigated this assumption.

Literature Review

Numerous research has been conducted to address the persistent discussion of gang involvement and related victimization within society. Research by Carson & Esbensen (2019) shows that involvement in gang-related activities exposes its members to experience direct or indirect victimization among other perceived incivilities such as gang graffiti and dress codes (P. 6). The research further explains lower levels of fear among individuals engaging in delinquent lifestyles, those who are considered to be more likely to be victimized continue to perpetuate gang-related activities. It is also evident that the youth who are involved in gang activities are aware of the high risk of experiencing victimization but instead they perceive these risks to be less salient (Carson & Esbensen, 2019). It is, therefore, evident that gang involvement exposes youth to risks of being victims of serious violence which is also bolstered by their low perception of risk. For instance, the youth who engage in join gangs and get involved in criminal activities are usually less forward-thinking as a result of their decreased levels of self-control. This encourages them to engage in a myriad of criminal acts without sufficiently assessing the possible risks they may encounter. Some of the risks that they may encounter include physical altercations with other gang members or the law enforcement officers resulting in serious injuries or even death. Gagnon (2018) also cites fear as a key contributor to the increased likelihood of victimization as a result of gang involvement (pp. 4124-4126). It is also apparent that the gang-involved youth tend to distinguish victimization based on their level of seriousness and consider the more serious instances of victimization to be less common, and as such, develop less fear. This will encourage a lot of careless undertakings that renders them more vulnerable to a series of violent victimization. The fact that gang-involved youth normally perceive themselves as being more ‘streetwise’ than none-gang members gives them the confidence to risk their lives and end up becoming victims of serious violence (Gagnon, 2018). This is also coupled with the aspect of the perceived protection that gang-involved youth expect from their gang attachments and their perceived status in society.

A more detailed approach was taken in the research conducted by Watkins & Melde (2018) which compared the effects of gender-based gang involvement on victimization and involvement in a crime. Specifically, the authors revealed that male gang members are more predisposed to engaging in criminal acts and becoming victims of serious violence compared to their female counterparts (Watkins & Melde, 2018). However, it is also evident from the research findings that female gang members bring a generally more pronounced impact on serious crime, demonstrating the fact that females are more criminogenic as much as males. As such, both males and females who are involved in gang activities both in school and within their respective communities are equally vulnerable to becoming victims of serious violence. This is because the implications of engaging in violence do not recognize the victims based on their gender rather deliver the consequences without prejudice. However, there is limited research on female gang membership making it difficult to establish a clear involvement and the resulting victimization. Timchenko et al. (2020) conducted research to further elaborate and enrich the public with knowledge on female gang membership by analyzing females from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health). The research revealed that females are more likely to engage in gang-motivated criminal activities that will ultimately expose them to victimization (Timchenko et al., 2020). For instance, it is evident that victimization experiences are a result of increased involvement in violent crime and delinquency among gang members. As such, individuals who engage in these violent crimes will be at a higher risk of being arrested and imprisoned or even killed in the events of physical altercations. Similarly, victimization outcomes are not solely issues of incarceration, injuries, and death rather it can be health effects such as trauma and other mental health disorders.

Therefore, Wood & Dennard (2017) researched the levels of exposure to violence, PTSD symptoms, and other mental health issues experienced by a gang and non-gang prisoners. The study showed that street gang prisoners mainly encompassed the youth, and portrayed evidence of compromised mental health due to the serious violence they experience when perpetrating gang-related activities (Wood & Dennard, 2017). The implication of being incarcerated is also another contributor to their undermined mental health since their long enjoyed freedom in the streets is curtailed when detained in controlled environments. As such, Wood & Dennard (2017) suggests that the policies and intervention strategies should be initiated and implemented within the justice system to identify and address the mental health needs of gang-involved prisoners, and as such, rehabilitating them and preparing them to return as lawful members of the society (pp. 39-40). Similarly, another recent research by Dierkhising et al. (2021) strived to discuss the interrelated problems of previously incarcerated youth with regards to issues of traumatic grief, behavior health, loss, and instance of self-reporting. The study findings show significant turning points among the formally incarcerated gang-involved youth. For instance, gang involvement exposed the youth to extreme community violence as perpetrators or witnesses, which triggered serious posttraumatic stress as well as substance abuse (Dierkhising et al., 2021).

Specifically, gang-involved youth as likely to experience a myriad of street violence that may change the way they perceive people and things within their surroundings, which can change them for better or for worse. The resulting mental and emotional disturbance from active involvement and witnessing of gang-motivated criminal activities can cause perpetual posttraumatic stress and consequently severe mental disorders. Furthermore, gang-involved youth can resort to substance abuse as a way of trying to forget the violence and harm they cause to the public during their daily gang endeavors (Wood & Dennard, 2017). This, therefore, requires sufficient interventions that will support posttraumatic growth on formally incarcerated youth who are recovering from the trauma developed during their gang membership and in prison. Furthermore, victimization from gang involvement is also evident from traumatic loss and grief that gang-involved youth encounter when they fall victims to violent crime as well as get arrested and incarcerated (Dierkhising et al., 2021). This mandates adequate access to trauma-focused treatment for previously incarcerated youth to help them make peace with their past as well as recover from grief and loss.

Another important study by Conway-Turner et al. (2020) focuses on providing emphasis on the social and emotional outcomes of youth who are involved in gang activities. As such, it was deduced that victimization resulting from gang involvement directly relates to negative emotionality among gang-involved youth (Conway-Turner et al., 2020). It is also evident that most peer victimization is rare among the gang-involved youth, with implies that there is reduced negative emotionality among this group unlike those not in gangs. Within gang memberships, there is general support amongst members that facilitate avoidance of instance of victimization and stigmatization that may result in emotional disturbance. Gang-involved youth tend to support and protect each other, and as such, reduce negative emotionally unlike those not in gangs (Conway-Turner et al., 2020). Furthermore, victimization-related negative emotional outcomes are revealed to be more severe on children in middle school compared to those in high school. This is because most young gang members are have limited experience with serious violence associated with gang memberships, and as such, find it hard to fathom the criminal activities they actively engage in and witness daily. In more recent research, Leverso & O’Neill (2021) explore the relationship between gang involvement and different forms of victimization. It was, therefore, revealed that gang membership or organization directly exposes its members to becoming victims of both simple and aggravated assault (Leverso & O’Neill, 2021). Another deduction from the study is that gang centrality positively influences individuals’ aggravated assault victimization while being a gang leader reduces the chance of experiencing aggravated assault. This demonstrates the dynamicity of gang involvement and the fact that different levels of involvement trigger different forms of victimization. Therefore, it is evident that victimization of gang-involved youth varies based on their age, roles in the gang, nature of activities one engage in, among other risk factors.

Discussion and Conclusion

Gang involvement is a major concern to policymakers, community authorities, and school officials as it prompt victimization issues that disrupt the safety and well-being of the members of society. For instance, the fact that gang involvement can directly or indirectly render people, victims of serious violence, arrests and incarcerations, and mental health issues, makes it a major societal problem (Carson & Esbensen, 2019). Fear is a notable contributing factor to the victimization of gang-involved youth. Gang-involved youth consider serious victimization as less probable, thus becoming less afraid and engaging in violence that may victimize them. Furthermore, the low forward-thinking capacity of young gang members bolsters their fearlessness since they often fail to consider the possible consequences of their actions, thus predisposing them to victimization. It is also evident that both males and females who are involved in gang activities communities are equally vulnerable to becoming victims of serious violence because victimization does not discriminate (Timchenko et al., 2020). Gang involvement and related criminal activities are also portrayed to undermine the mental health of the victims by exposing them to extreme and disturbing incidents that prompt symptoms of PTSD among gang-involved youth especially children in middle school. Similarly, gang involvement results in negative emotionality as a result of exposure to episodes of serious violence either actively involved or witnessing (Conway-Turner et al., 2020). The studies reviewed in this paper mainly utilized data from single sources focusing their findings on a specific group of people within a given geographic location. As a result, this limits the generalization of results since a single group cannot be sufficient to make assumptions for the entire population. As such, there is the need for further research that conducts extensive research using samples from all the states while engaging both formally incarcerated and active gang-involved youth to ensure both perspectives are considered for better conclusions. Besides, future research should attempt to focus more on primary data to ensure they access data that represents the current trends in gang involvement and victimization. This will promote policy initiations that are relevant to the current challenges accruing from gang-related victimization. Major policy implementation that can come out of this approach is one that unites law enforcement, the education system, parents, religious organizations, the community, and youth towards the fight against gang involvement, and hence mitigating victimization (Brisson et al., 2020).


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