Social Networks, Delinquency, and Gang Memberships: New Report Follows the Link between Young Latinos and the Gang Lifestyle
Date:  06-11-2012

How do interpersonal relationships and networks shape social interaction?
Starting with research that was already at hand: Immigrant generational status is highly correlated with the commission of violence by Latino youth (Sampson, Morenoff, & Raudenbush 2005), and Latinos have more co-offenders than offenders of other races/ethnicities (Daly & Johnson 2006), the Urban Institute (UI) set out to better understand the role social networks play in the lives of young Latinos who wind up as members of violent gangs, which in turn often leads them straight into the juvenile justice system. Surveying youths aged 14 -21 in one Maryland neighborhood, the UI sought to find the risk factors associated with leading young people to embrace the gang lifestyle. The survey was includes data collected from interviewing residents of 835 households, of which 147 individuals who met all the requirements for participation in the study completed it. Of these:

  • Sixty percent were foreign-born

  • Fifty-five percent had a high school diploma

  • The per capita income is less than half that of the county average

    The UI report, Social Networks, Delinquency, and Gang Memberships: Using a Neighborhood Framework to Examine the Influence of Network Composition and Structure in a Latino Community, sought answers to the following questions:

  • How do interpersonal relationships and networks—beyond peer networks—shape social interaction, and, in turn, individual-level antisocial behavior?

  • Do ties to the neighborhood elicit particular patterns in social networks that shape behavior?

    Social Networks, Delinquency, and Gang Memberships is a detailed and important report for those seeking information on the make-up of Latino gangs, and how they are structured. Details of the report include:

  • The Influence of Delinquent Alters: For every additional delinquent alter in an ego’s network, the ego’s probability of selling drugs increases by 38 percent. Individuals who named an individual in a gang fight are 1.6 times more likely to be in a gang fight themselves. Thus, having delinquent/criminal relationships appears to be a key factor in shaping an individual’s likelihood of delinquency and gang membership

  • Being male is a serious risk factor in our models for all delinquent outcomes save for being in a gang. Boys are 14 times more likely to sell drugs than girls, 3.7 times more likely to attack someone with a weapon, and twice as likely to participate in a gang fight. Girls are just as likely as boys to self-identify as being part of gangs, but are much less likely to be involved in gang fights.

  • Youth self-identifying as currently or ever in a gang were three times more likely to carry a weapon, use drugs, or attack someone with a weapon, and four times more likely to sell drugs (differences are statistically significant) than the average youth in the UI study.

    The following excerpts from the UI report detail what conclusions were drawn from their collection of data:

  • Neighborhoods shape relations. First and foremost, neighborhoods shape relations. Because there may be something particular about neighborhood relations that is associated with delinquency (as shown in whole network regression models), it is important for practice to continue to focus on neighborhood-based programs as a means of intervention and prevention. However, programs that bring delinquent youth together should take care to help youth establish new positive relationships that can be sustained. In addition, neighborhood-based efforts to change the mindset of youth and modify attitudes that support violence or gun carrying via public health model programs like Chicago CeaseFire can help address the culture (or subculture) of violence within a neighborhood setting. Programs that allow youth to have experiences beyond the boundaries of the neighborhood can open their eyes to new pro-social opportunities and provide possible avenues for developing positive relationships outside the community.

  • Families should be sources of prevention and intervention. The presence of siblings in the networks present spoke to the importance of peer-aged family support. Including the siblings of delinquent and at-risk youth could increase chances of success for prevention and intervention efforts. Similarly, strengthening the relationship between youth and their parents/caregivers should provide benefits for youth in numerous ways. Special attention should be given to youth who have parents that are incarcerated or have been involved in gangs and the roles these adults play in their children’s lives.

  • Adult role models should be sources for prevention and intervention. Because one of our key findings suggests that the delinquency/criminality of non-peer alters is associated with delinquency, it is important for prevention and intervention programs to address the bonds and relationships that youth have with people other than peers. It might be difficult to break up a group of delinquent peers but easier to find or nurture a mentor or new role models for youth. In fact, research has shown that mentoring programs lead to a reduction in delinquency. The findings from this study add to the growing body of research suggesting strong positive relationships matter for youth. To increase the probability of making a difference in the lives of youth, mentor relationships would need to be sustained long enough so that a youth would consider the mentor an important, influential person, someone the youth would turn to for advice, as advice networks appear to be a protective factor when it comes to aggression.

  • Pro-social peer networks can be fortified and leveraged. Programs should use strong outreach to appeal to the peer networks of youth already affiliated with existing programs and make an effort to help fortify pro-social peer networks and encourage pro-social activities. Programs that mix delinquent youth with nondelinquent youth could attempt to explicitly reinforce the importance of pro-social behavior and help detach youth from antisocial peers. Our study did not find any strong influences on delinquency related to the amount of time spent with peers or with regard to how close or whether someone was liked; thus, it is possible that practitioners conducting peer outreach can engage a wide swath of peers when recruiting youth for their programming and services.

  • Network structure can help determine the most appropriate interventions. Perverse effects can result from even the most well-intentioned programs if neighborhood context and social structure of the targeted area are not understood at the outset. An understanding of youth networks can inform practitioners of the most appropriate interventions, such as whether prosocial messages can be effectively and efficiently spread throughout a network, or if removing key individuals can successfully disrupt a social network’s negative behaviors.

  • Acculturation’s role in delinquency is unclear. Our findings supported prior work demonstrating the link between acculturation and certain types of delinquency. But, given prior work in this area and our findings on the protective roles of family and other pro-social adults, we reiterate Martinez’s suggestion that family bonding and parenting should be the focus on intervention effects—not acculturation itself—but we also suggest that making these interventions culturally appropriate is of utmost importance to ensuring community participation and success.
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