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Seattle research explores adult lives of gang members

As adults, "the young people who joined a gang in adolescence were still committing crimes, they were still receiving income from illegal sources, like drug selling, they were more likely to have gone to jail in the past year," reported University of Washington doctoral candidate Amanda Gilman. (AP Photo/File)
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We know that kids who join gangs are more likely to drop out of school and go to jail. Now, Seattle researchers have evidence that gang membership in teen years can damage lives long into adulthood, in unexpected ways.

For almost 30 years, researchers in Seattle have been following 808 people first identified as 5th graders from 18 elementary schools in some of Seattle’s poorer, higher crime neighborhoods.

“They’re almost 40 years old, a lot of them have children of their own, families of their own,” said University of Washington doctoral candidate Amanda Gilman, with the Seattle Social Development Project. She says the kids were questioned annually on a variety of topics until they were 18 and then every three years after that. Gilman compared 173 kids who joined gangs to 173 kids with similar risk factors who did not. She wanted to know how being in a gang changed them.

“We think of gang membership as primarily an adolescent problem but they eventually grow up and how are they functioning in adulthood?”

The average age the kids in the panel joined a gang was 15. Nobody reported joining after age 19.

Some of the findings, published in the American Journal of Public Health were expected, others a surprise.

As adults, “the young people who joined a gang in adolescence were still committing crimes, they were still receiving income from illegal sources, like drug selling, they were more likely to have gone to jail in the past year,” reported Gilman. “But, in addition, by age 33 they reported poorer health than those who had never joined a gang, they were more likely to have drug addiction problems, more likely to be on welfare and less likely to have graduated high school.”

By the numbers, former teen gang members were half as likely to have graduated high school, three times more likely to have drug-abuse issues and twice as likely to report poor health, according to the research.

“Gang membership is not just about adolescent consequences, now we’re seeing it’s possibly a public health problem and it lasts far into adulthood,” Gilman concluded.

The researchers hope their findings will encourage the implementation of research-based, gang prevention programs.

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