“From Your First Cigarette to Your Last Dyin’ Day”: The Patterning of Gang Membership in the Life-Course

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Abstract

Objective

Motivated by the reorientation of gang membership into a life-course framework and concerns about distinct populations of juvenile and adult gang members, this study draws from the criminal career paradigm to examine the contours of gang membership and their variability in the life-course.

Methods

Based on nine annual waves of national panel data from the NLSY97, this study uses growth curve and group-based trajectory modeling to examine the dynamic and cumulative prevalence of gang membership, variability in the pathways into and out of gangs, and the correlates of these pathways from ages 10 to 23.

Results

The cumulative prevalence of gang membership was 8 %, while the dynamic age-graded prevalence of gang membership peaked at 3 % at age 15. Six distinct trajectories accounted for variability in the patterning of gang membership, including an adult onset trajectory. Gang membership in adulthood was an even mix of adolescence carryover and adult initiation. The typical gang career lasts 2 years or less, although much longer for an appreciable subset of respondents. Gender and racial/ethnic disproportionalities in gang membership increase in magnitude over the life-course.

Conclusions

Gang membership is strongly age-graded. The results of this study support a developmental research agenda to unpack the theoretical and empirical causes and consequences of gang membership across stages of the life-course.

Portions of this manuscript were presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in Chicago in 2012.