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The vast majority of young people never get involved in crime or join gangs.  Those who do join gangs tend to have specific risk factors that influence their involvement and membership in gangs.

To effectively prevent youth from joining gangs, it is essential to understand these risks.

What is a risk factor?

Risk factors can be defined as life events or experiences that are associated with an increase in problem behaviours, such as drug use or gang activities.

For an example, being the child of a single-parent who is often absent from the home and lacks adequate support, can be considered a risk factor.  The negative influence of a friend or sibling can be another.

Risk factors can be divided into five categories:

  • Family

  • School

  • Peer group

  • Individual, and

  • Community

Major risk factors

Long-term studies of adolescents in Canadian and American cities suggest that the most important risk factors for gang involvement include:

  • Negative influences in the youth's life
  • Limited attachment to the community
  • Over-reliance on anti-social peers
  • Alcohol and drug use
  • Poor educational or employment potential
  • A need for recognition and belonging

Family Risk Factors

Most Impactful

Ages 0 - 6

  • Family disorganization, including high poverty and residential mobility

  • Family violence, neglect, and drug addiction

  • Family members in a gang

  • Lack of adult and parental role models, parental criminality, parents with violent attitudes, siblings with anti-social behaviours

  • Extreme economic deprivation

School Risk Factors

Most Impactful

Ages 6 - 12

  • Poor school performance

  • Low educational aspirations, especially in young females

  • Negative labelling by teachers

  • High levels of anti-social behaviour

  • Few teacher role models

  • Educational frustration

  • Low attachment to school

  • Learning difficulties

Peer Group Risk Factors

Most Impactful

Ages 9 - 15

  • High commitment to delinquent peers

  • Street socialization

  • Gang members in class

  • Friends who use drugs or who are gang members

  • Interaction with delinquent peers

  • Pre-teen exposure to stress

Individual Risk Factors

Most Impactful

Ages 12 - 18

  • Prior delinquency

  • Illegal gun ownership

  • Drug trafficking

  • Desire for group rewards such as status, identity, self-esteem, companionship and protection

  • Anti-social attitudes

  • Aggression

  • Alcohol and drug use

  • Early or precocious sexual activity

  • Violent victimization

Community Risk Factors

Most Impactful

Ages 15+

  • Social disorganization, including high poverty and residential mobility

  • High crime neighbourhood; neighbourhood youth in trouble

  • Presence of gangs in the neighbourhood

  • Availability or perceived access to drugs in the neighbourhood

  • Availability of firearms

  • Cultural norms supporting gang behaviour

  • Feeling unsafe in the neighbourhood

Evolving risk factors

Gang involvement is a process that happens over time.  This process is influenced by the life trajectory and individual, familial and social experiences of a young person.

Several studies indicate that risk factors associated with gang involvement are present long before a youth joins a gang.  For example, youths who were most behaviourally and socially maladjusted in childhood were found to be the most likely to join and stay in gangs for several years.

Unless appropriate actions are taken to address the factors that result in more serious crime or gang involvement, early negative life experiences and subsequent involvement in crime will only reinforce the path towards continued delinquency.

Additionally, it appears that not only entry into gangs, but also prolonged membership is associated with a greater risk of delinquency.

Risk factors and prevention

The identification of the specific risk factors associated with youth gang involvement helps us determine where and how to focus prevention efforts.

Briefly, we know that:

  • The more risk factors that a youth experiences, the more likely he or she is to join a gang.  Research also suggests that the presence of risk factors in multiple categories increases the probability of gang involvement.
  • The increase in gang violence and crime in Aboriginal communities has been attributed in part to an increasing youth population, inadequate housing, drug and alcohol abuse, a high unemployment rate, lack of education, poverty, poor parenting skills, the loss of culture, language and identity and a sense of exclusion.
  • Gang cohesion, culture and lifestyle are also important considerations.  A study showed that gang members display higher rates of delinquent behaviours and drug use than non-gang members.

Protective factors and prevention

In addition to preventing youth from joining gangs, it is important to reduce membership duration for youth who begong to a gang and to provide appropriate services (drug treatment, employment and educational opportunities) once they leave a gang.

Strengthening protective factors plays an important role in reducing youth gang involvement.  Protective factors are positive influences that mitigate the impact of risk factors and decrease the likelihood of problem behaviour.

Drawing on evidence regarding gang prevention, some programs help increase protective factors among youth by:

  • Building positive relationships and patterns with mentors and pro-social peers
  • Creating positive social environments through community, family and service organizations, and
  • Promoting social and economic policies that support positive youth development


Understanding why some young people join gangs while others do not is key to effective prevention efforts.

Current research suggests the need to address specific risk factors that lead youth to violence and gangs.  It is also important to enhance protective factors that can play a role in keeping youth out of gangs.


The above listed information was authored and published by the National Crime Prevention Centre (NCPC) of Public Safety Canada.  The NCPC is committed to developing and disseminating practical knowledge to address the problem of youth gangs.  This information sheet is one of a series providing information related to youth gang involvement.  It is designed to assist those who are concerned about youth gangs and who are working to help prevent youth from becoming involved in gangs or to help them leave gangs.

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