Changing Course: Preventing Youth From Joining Gangs

The consequences of gangs — and the burden they place on the law enforcement and public health systems in our communities — are significant. People who work in the fields of public health and public safety know that efforts to address the problem after kids have already joined gangs are not enough. To realize a significant and lasting reduction in youth gang activity, we must prevent young people from joining gangs in the first place.

Here are some things we know from the research:

  • The large majority of kids who join a gang do so at a very early age — between 11 and 15 years old.
  • Joining a gang is part of a life course; therefore, it is important to understand the risk factors for children starting at birth.
  • Strong families are a major protective factor in preventing kids from joining gangs.
  • Very early prevention efforts — including programs focusing on low-income pregnant mothers and families with young children — show promising results.
  • Communities — not just classrooms — should be regarded as a valuable resource for reaching kids at risk of joining gangs.
  • Girls join gangs in large numbers; therefore, some prevention efforts should address gender-specific concerns.

NIJ and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) formed a partnership to publish a book, Changing Course: Preventing Gang Membership. Written by some of the nation’s top criminal justice and public health researchers, Changing Course offers evidence-based principles that can halt the cascading impact of gangs on youth, families, neighborhoods and society at large. The goal of the book (and a separate executive summary publication) is to help policymakers who make decisions about the best use of taxpayer dollars — and practitioners who work in the trenches, such as law enforcement officers, teachers and community services providers — understand what the research says about keeping kids out of gangs.

Each chapter includes an In the Spotlight section, which highlights interviews with practitioners who describe their personal experiences. Each chapter also includes a discussion of policy implications.

The Executive Summary (pdf, 20 pages) offers a glimpse into the full book and is designed especially for policymakers and other professionals who may want an overview of major take-away points that the researchers explore in each chapter.

Read summaries of and download individual chapters:

Date Created: September 16, 2013