AURORA | Prisons may not be the ripe recruiting ground for gang members experts thought they were, according to a new University of Colorado study.
The study, conducted by CU Boulder criminologist David Pyrooz, says juvenile offenders are more likely to leave a gang than join one while incarcerated.
Pyrooz, assistant professor of sociology at the university’s Institute for Behavioral Science, said researchers have long known gang members are more likely than the rest of the population to be incarcerated.
“What we didn’t know was whether this was a product of the prison system or a product of the bad behavior of gang members on the street,” he said.
The study, published in the journal Criminology, focused on 1,336 adolescents in Phoenix and Philadelphia, according to the university. Researchers followed those inmates over 7 years via interviews and surveys before they were locked up. The contact continued during and after their incarceration.
Pyrooz said researchers expected to see more young people joining a gang upon entering the prison system but were surprised to see how rare that actually was.
In Phoenix, the university said 23 percent of inmates in a gang before being incarcerated no longer claimed gang membership when locked up. Just 5 percent of inmates studied joined a gang while in incarcerated.
In Philadelphia, 27 percent of gang members tossed their gang affiliation when they got locked up and only nine people, less than 2 percent, joined a gang while in jail.
Pyrooz said there may be some regional differences. He said another study he is working on in Texas has shown early results indicating it is more common there to join a gang after being incarcerated.
While the numbers show many gang members leave gang life after they are sent to prison, Pyrooz stopped short of saying prison could be used more often as a way to get gang members to leave that life.
“That doesn’t necessarily imply that we should be ramping up incarceration for gang members,” he said.
Gang members often leave because of “natural social processes,” he said. That can include a girlfriend or a job, and in some cases, prison could act as that social process that sparks a change.
While violence across the country has dipped dramatically in the last two decades, Pyrooz said gang violence, and homicides in particular, have been “stubbornly persistent.”
While gang members make up just less than one percent of the population — about .25 percent — Pyrooz said they still account for about one in five homicides in major cities, and 13 percent nationwide.
Just how widespread gang activity is in Aurora is something of a mystery. The department used to issue an annual report detailing gang activity but Sgt. Chris Amsler, a spokesman for the department, said APD hasn’t issued that report in several years.
One of the last reports the department issued was in 2013. That report said gang activity in Aurora was dropping steadily.
According to the report, violent gang crime was down slightly from 2011 to 2012, and down more than 35 percent compared to annual averages between 2006 and 2011.
APD breaks down gang crime into two categories. One is gang-related crime. That can be anything from a gang member beating his girlfriend, to a gang member getting his car stolen.
The other is gang-motivated crime. Those are crimes police believe were committed to benefit the gang. It could be a gang member shooting a member of a rival gang, or property crime aimed at scoring cash for the gang.
Aurora police logged just nine gang-motivated violent crimes in 2012, down from 29 the previous year. All nine of those were aggravated assaults, a steep drop from 2006, when there were 43 gang-motivated aggravated assaults.
Where those numbers stand now is unclear. Amsler said the department still tracks whether crimes were gang related or gang motivated, but said the stats on gang activity in 2015 and 2016 were not immediately available. The department did not reply to a formal records request for the data as of press time.