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Children and young people in gangs: a longitudinal analysis

Youth gangs have received widespread political and media attention in the last decade. Gang membership has been linked to violent crime among young people, particularly in cases of gun and knife crime. More recently, this focus on gang membership among young people has been amplified by the rioting in some UK cities in summer 2011.

Based on the suspected link between gangs and violent crime, government and different agencies have begun to develop policy responses to gangs. In November 2011, the government published its cross-government strategy to combat gang and youth violence. Alongside this, police forces and local authorities are drawing on US models to tackle gangs, including the formation of dedicated units and multi-agency teams.

This study aims to enhance the evidence base for the developing policy context. We have used data from the Offending, Crime and Justice Survey (OCJS) to explore the circumstances that lead to young people joining, remaining, and leaving gangs in England and Wales. The OCJS provides the best nationally representative data available on young people’s victimisation and offending in the UK.

Our findings, which are discussed in more detail in this briefing paper, are that gang membership increases the chances of offending, antisocial behaviour, and drug use among young people. This finding vindicates the current policy approach of treating gang membership as a distinct part of crime prevention and youth policy.

However our findings also show the diversity within the different groups defined as ‘gangs’. There are dangers in adopting an overly-general conception 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, preventative and restorative interventions need to 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.