Despite increased danger, youth gang members still feel safer (w/Video)

June 3, 2009
Despite increased danger, youth gang members still feel safer
Chris Melde is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University. Credit: Michigan State University

Children who join gangs feel safer despite a greater risk of being assaulted or killed, according to federally funded research led by a Michigan State University criminologist.

The findings by MSU's Chris Melde, which appear in the current edition of the journal , may help explain why youth continue to join street gangs despite the well-established danger.

"It's a paradox," said Melde, assistant professor of criminal justice. "Gang members essentially are not allowed to show and this can have a profound impact on adolescents. Their quest for acceptance, along with their immersion into this culture steeped in violence, may ultimately numb their reaction to violence, including their fear of victimization."

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Chris Melde, assistant professor at Michigan State University, discusses his study on youth gangs and violence. Credit: Michigan State University

While many researchers look at the downside of gang membership, Melde's research explores the potential benefits - or at least the perceived benefits. The current research is part of a larger project led by professor Finn-Aage Esbensen at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and funded by the National Institute of Justice, a department of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The project is believed to be the first long-term analysis of its kind. Melde and his colleagues studied 1,450 public school students in the sixth through ninth grades during a two-year period. The students came from 15 schools in four states: Arizona, New Mexico, Massachusetts and South Carolina.

The students who joined gangs said they had higher levels of victimization, but also reported a relatively large decrease in fear at the same time. Victimization ranged from the fear of home invasion to being attacked.

The study also highlights a possible intervention point. Because fear, which affects decision-making, generally peaks immediately following a violent action - and before the gang can organize a response - Melde said that might be the best time to try convincing gang members to quit.

"Intervening in their lives right then may impact their decision whether they stay in a or not," he said.

Source: Michigan State University (news : web)

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