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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Contrary to common belief, most youths who refuse offers to join a gang do so without suffering serious physical harm, according to a new study of gangs in four cities.

In fact, young men and women are more likely to be hurt in gang initiation rituals than they are by refusing to join, said C. Ronald Huff, leader of the study and director of Ohio State University's Criminal Justice Research Center.

"Most people have thought teens face serious reprisals if they spurn a gang invitation, but that isn't so," said Huff, a professor of public policy and management at Ohio State and editor of the books Gangs in America and The Gang Intervention Handbook.

"If a teen says he doesn't want to join, and does so politely without 'disrespecting' the gang, the chances are overwhelming that nothing will happen."

The study, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, included interviews with 187 self-acknowledged gang members in Denver and Aurora, Colo., Broward County, Fla., and Cleveland, Ohio. The gang members were asked if they knew anyone who refused to join a gang and, if so, what the consequences were. In those cases known to the gang members, 30 percent to 67 percent of the young people who refused to join (depending on the city) suffered no consequences. A much smaller percentage of the teens -- 6 percent to 17 percent -- suffered some physical harm, usually minor in nature.

"In cases in which youths resisted gang overtures and suffered physical harm, the injuries were seldom serious," Huff said. "Media accounts of gang killings and serious assaults on youths who refuse to join a gang paint an exaggerated picture."

Teens face more danger by joining a gang than they do by avoiding membership, Huff said. The study found that the most common initiation ritual for new members in all four cities involved gang members assaulting the new recruit. This process, which gangs call "beating in" or "jumping in," is intended to prove the new recruit is tough and can take punishment. "Youths who respectfully refuse to join a gang face good odds that nothing serious will happen to them, but those who join usually suffer serious physical assault as an initiation rite."

The study also compared gang members to "at-risk" youth in the same cities who did not belong to gangs. The results showed that gangs play a key role in encouraging criminal behavior among low-income, disadvantaged youth, Huff said. In almost all crime categories, gang members were significantly more likely to be offenders than were similar youth who were not involved in gangs.

For example, 61 percent of gang members in Cleveland reported selling drugs outside of school, compared to only 16 percent of non-gang members. And 15 percent of gang members had been involved in homicides, compared to none of the non-gang members. Overall, gang members were more likely to be involved in auto theft, theft, drug use and sales, carrying concealed weapons at school, intimidating or assaulting victims and witnesses, homicides and drive-by shootings.

"Even though they may grow up in similar circumstances, gang and non-gang youths are very different when it comes to crime," Huff said. "Until they join a gang, many of these at-risk youth are getting pro-social and anti-criminal messages from teachers and parents. But once they join a gang, the messages they hear most often are encouraging them to commit crimes."

The study found that most youths who join gangs begin at about age 13 as "wannabes" -- people who associate with gang members without actively participating in their activities. They join about six months later, and get arrested for their first crime within six months of joining. Huff said this shows the need to aim effective gang-resistance education programs at preteens, especially for those who are prone to violent or delinquent behavior. "There are several windows of opportunity for intervening with gang members, but the most important may be before they become wannabes," Huff said.



One of the best ways teens can politely refuse to join a gang may be to use their mothers as an excuse.

Huff said he developed this "blame mom" strategy -- based on the psychological theory of cognitive dissonance -- over the past 12 years of interviewing gang members. "One thing I found consistently in my interviews is that gang members say they love their mothers. They don't usually say much about their dads, but they have a lot of affection for their mothers. When they talk about their moms, there will be tears in their eyes."

The most common regret expressed by gang members -- particularly those who have been to prison -- is that their criminal activity has disappointed their mothers, Huff has found. In fact, more than 80 percent of gang members Huff has interviewed said that, if they had a choice to do it over, they wouldn't join.

This provides teens with a good way to sidestep gangs, he said. "Youths attempting to resist gang involvement might tell gang members they respect them and might like to join the gang, but that their mother disapproves, and they don't want to show disrespect to her," Huff said.

"I believe many gang leaders would let someone slide if they said they didn't want to join because of their mother. Many gang members probably wish they had done the same thing."


Contact: C. Ronald Huff, (614) 292-4544; Huff.2@osu.edu
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu