UW News

November 15, 1996

Seattle gang study shows small minority of teens responsible for more than half of adolescent crime

A small number of teenagers, the 15 percent who join gangs, account for 58 percent of juvenile crime, according to a University of Washington research team that will report its findings on the first study of Seattle youth gangs at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in Chicago on Thursday, Nov. 21.

The study also discovered that, contrary to popular belief, gang membership is fleeting for most teenage participants. Sixty-nine percent of the teens who joined the gangs that were studied were members for only one year or less, and only 3 percent were members for four or five years, said David Hawkins, UW professor of social work, and Karl Hill, project director.

Data from the gang study were drawn from a larger on-going project begun in 1981. The gang study tracked an ethnically diverse sample of 808 children from 18 elementary schools serving high-crime neighborhoods in Seattle for seven years starting in the fifth grade. The researchers found that the 124 adolescents who joined gangs were responsible for 85 percent of the robberies, 54 percent of the felony thefts, 62 percent of the drug selling and 51 percent of the minor assaults committed by all of the teens studied.

“Gangs are an active ingredient in criminal activity,” said Hawkins, who is director of the UW’s Social Development Research Group. “Gangs contribute to crime over and above just being involved with other delinquents. We’ve known for a long time that having delinquent friends is predictive of anti-social behavior, but this study shows that being in a gang predicts a higher offense rate in both juvenile court records and teenagers’ self-reports of criminal activity.”

The study also identified a wide of variety personal, family, school and community factors that appear to be predictive of future gang membership. These include poverty, unstable family living conditions, the availability of drugs and alcohol, parents who tolerate or commit violence, falling behind or failing in school and hanging out with delinquents. The more of these risk factors children are exposed to, the more likely they are to join a gang in adolescence, the researchers believe.

The study also uncovered distinctive patterns of anti-social and criminal behavior.

Virtually every anti-social behavior increases during the years of gang membership. This includes violence, drug and alcohol use, robbery, assault, breaking and entering and car theft, Hill said.

When teenagers quit gangs the level of their criminal and delinquent behavior drops to pre-gang levels, with the exception of drug use and selling.

The study found that drug selling increases dramatically during the year of gang membership and then remains relatively high for youths after they have left a gang. For some youths, gang membership may be a kind job-training for drug sales that continues beyond membership, the researchers believe.

Why most teenagers leave gangs within one year of joining is a question the researchers are still examining.

Other findings from the Seattle gang study indicated:

? 22 percent of the boys and 9 percent of the girls joined gangs.

? Teenagers are most likely to join a gang at ages 14 or 15.

? The majority of gang members are not black, but a higher percent of black youths join gangs than adolescents of other racial or ethnic groups.

The Seattle gang study was funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention of the federal Department of Justice to fill in some of the blanks about adolescent gangs in the United States. There are no accurate national surveys measuring teen participation in gangs, and the Seattle study is only the third to explore membership over a long period of time. Earlier studies were conducted in Denver and Rochester, NY.

Other members of the Seattle study team were Richard Catalano, Sara Battin, Rick Kosterman and Bob Abbott, all UW researchers, and James Howell, a Virginia private consultant and former research director of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

“Our study clearly shows that gangs escalate delinquent behavior. Before this, I wasn’t sure that gangs were any worse than groups of delinquents hanging out on street corners. But, in fact, gangs significantly contribute to crime. If we are going to cut the crime rate, we need to learn how to prevent young people from joining gangs,” Hawkins said.


For additional information, contact:

Hawkins at (206) 543-7655 or at {jdh@u.washington}. He can be reached in Chicago Nov. 17-19 at the Intercontinental Hotel at (312) 944-4110 and Nov. 20-22 at the Marriott Hotel at (312) 836-6128.

Hill at (206) 685-3859 or by e-mail at {khill@u.washington.edu}. He will be at the Intercontinental Hotel Nov. 19-20 and the Marriott Nov. 21-23. <!—at end of each paragraph insert