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Gang membership increases chances of offending, antisocial behaviour, and drug use

By Nuffield Foundation

Gang membership increases the chances of offending, antisocial behaviour and drug use among young people, according to research published by the Nuffield Foundation today.

Using data from the Offending, Crime and Justice Survey (OCJS), a team from the University of Manchester and NatCen Social Research explored the circumstances that lead to young people joining, remaining and leaving gangs in England and Wales.

They conclude that, given the evidence, the current policy approach of treating gang membership as a distinct part of crime and youth policy is the correct one.

However, the authors also highlight the diversity within the different groups defined as ‘gangs’. They warn of the dangers in adopting an overly-general concept of ‘gangs’; namely the risk of drawing young people unnecessarily into anti-gang policies (‘net-widening’) and the widespread and counterproductive stigmatic labelling of youth.

In light of this, they argue that preventative and restorative interventions should take care in differentiating between deviant youth group types. Blanket interventions may have desired consequences in some groups but create or exacerbate problems in others.

Key findings

  • Gang membership increases the chances of offending, antisocial behaviour and drug use but it is not a sufficient condition for these outcomes.
  • It is difficult to explain how gangs produce these outcomes but it is likely various mechanisms (i.e. change in routine activities and normative orientation) play a role.
  • Leaving a gang does not automatically and immediately lead to less problem behaviour but within a year there is a discernible effect. Additionally, most members leave a gang in under one year.
  • Problem and anti-social behaviour are the strongest predictors for joining a gang.
  • Gang members more likely to offend are less likely to leave a gang.
  • There is no evidence that the number of young people joining gangs has increased over time.
  • There are diverse sub-groups within the groups commonly labelled as gangs.
  • Police practice tends to focus attention, such as stop and search and stop and account, on two groups: individuals with prior police contact and individuals whose friends have had prior police contact – the “usual suspects”.
  • Ethnicity seems to matter more than self-reported offending behaviour for explaining the probability of being stopped and searched.

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We improve people’s lives by funding research that informs social policy, primarily in EducationWelfare and Justice. We also fund student programmes that give young people skills and confidence in science and research.

We offer our grant-holders the freedom to frame questions and enable new thinking. Our research must stand up to rigorous academic scrutiny, but we understand that to be successful in effecting change, it also needs to be relevant to people’s experience.