In the proposed research, in-depth interviews will be conducted with youth who have been gang involved at some point during the past five years. Importantly, the researchers will include both short-term gang members as well as those who have been gang-involved for multiple years. In light of this rich information, the proposed interviews will focus on the youths' gang experience by tapping into the meanings of youths' experiences, and what they attribute as the salient factors associated with their gang desistance. The overarching goal of the proposed research is to use a multi-method, multi-site approach to explore factors associated with gang desistance. Embedded within this overall goal are four objectives: 1) to assess the extent to which the experience of leaving the gang is similar or different for stable and transient youth; 2) to examine whether the processes for leaving the gang vary depending upon the gang members' centrality in the gang (i.e., core versus peripheral); 3) to investigate the role of sex and race/ethnicity in gang leaving; and 4) to investigate the extent that gang characteristics (e.g., group structure, sex composition, and gang types) influence the desistance process.
The proposed qualitative interviews with gang members (both current and former members) will provide insight into desistance while a life-course perspective (e.g., Elder 1985, Sampson and Laub 1997, 2002; Thornberry et al. 2003) will guide the quantitative analyses; that is, the researchers view gang membership as part of the adolescent experience and believe that it can best be understood by conceptualizing the onset of gang membership as a turning point in the lives of youth (Melde and Esbensen 2011). For instance, gang joining impacts youths' relationships with peers, school, and family; it changes their routine activities, and may even affect the way they think about themselves and their ideas about right and wrong. These potential consequences of gang joining may also impact their behavior and account for the observation that gang youth are substantially more involved in delinquent behavior generally and violent offending specifically. Importantly for this proposal, a body of research has found that gang membership is a transitory stage for most youth who become gang involved; gang membership is a status generally held for less than one year (e.g., Bendixen et al. 2005; Esbensen and Huizinga 1993; Gatti et al. 2006; Peterson et al., 2004; Thornberry et al., 1993, 2003). If indeed joining the gang is a turning point, then leaving the gang may also be a turning point with attitudinal and behavioral changes similar to those associated with joining the gang; the researchers will examine gang membership as part of a trajectory that involves transitions from one stage to another. This multi-method study will allow the researchers to examine factors associated with turning points and whether leaving the gang is a gradual process or the result of some drastic change in status.