The Gang Member Stands Out: Stigma as a Residual Consequence of Gang Involvement

Date01 March 2020
Published date01 March 2020
Subject MatterArticles
The Gang Member Stands
Out: Stigma as a Residual
of Gang Involvement
Sou Lee
and Bryan F. Bubolz
The topic of stigma and discrimination has been explored among various criminal justice populations;
however, few studies have examined the stigma associated with being a former gang member. This
study explores the stigmatic experiences among a sample of 30 self-identified former gang members
to highlight the ongoing discrimination they experience in the time following involvement. Using
grounded theory, results indicate that two thirds of study participants either anticipated or directly
experienced stigma on behalf of the police or general public in the time since gang exit. These
experiences were believed to impede future avenues of success and social integration. In addition to
highlighting the frequency of anticipated and experienced stigma, we describe the sources of stigma
that indicate former gang involvement. The sources of stigma include aspects of voluntary self-
presentation such as tattoos and style of dress as well as official sources of gang intelligence that
is most closely associated with gang databases. We conclude by discussing potential avenues for
addressing reintegration and adjustment strategies among former gang members.
criminal organizations/gangs, other, qualitative methods, violent behavior
Gangs have existed since the inception of the United States (Adamson, 2000; Sante, 1991) and have
grown tremendously since. There are approximately 850,000 gang members across the United
States, constituting more than 30,000 gangs (National Gang Center, 2012). Despite their enduring
nature, very little research has examined the stigmatization experiences among these individuals,
which is particularly troubling given the plethora of myths and stereotypes that characterize gang
members as criminally deviant and incorrigible (Howell, 2012) as well as the empirical evidence
linking gang membership to higher rates of crime and violence (e.g., Curry, Decker, & Pyrooz, 2014;
Decker & Van Winkle, 1996; Esbensen, Huizinga, & Weiher, 1993; Pyrooz, Turanovic, Decker, &
Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Carbondale, IL, USA
Corresponding Author:
Sou Lee, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, 1000 Faner Drive, MC
4504, Carbondale, IL 62901, USA.
Criminal Justice Review
2020, Vol. 45(1) 64-83
ª2019 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016819867385
Wu, 2016). Although not all gang members engage in crime (Klein, 2007), these perceptions
contributed to a moral panic during the 1980s and 1990s (Cyr, 2003; Howell, 2012; McCorkle &
Miethe, 1998), prompting social and political leaders to respond with a “war on gangs” and constant
bombardment of a “law and order” view of gangs and their communities (Duran, 2009; Howell,
The perception of dangerous gang members with pathological disorders attacking innocent
civilians is stigmatizing and may lead to differential treatment from formal agents of social control
and society more broadly. Stigma not only signifies immorality through social and physical markers
and characteristics (e.g., radical political behaviors, gang membership) but also designates individ-
uals as less-than-human, consequently erecting boundaries between “normals” and deviants (Austin,
2004; Goffman, 1963). Moreover, stigma is an interrelated process whereby individuals are nega-
tively labeled, distinguished and separated into an out-group, and experience loss of status and
discrimination (Link & Phelan, 2001).
While the scant research itself necessitates additional scholarship, the investigation of stigmati-
zation and gang membership is important for other reasons. First, awareness of this relationship
extends our understanding of how stigmatization manifests in different contexts; that is, how it
affects the reality of those stigmatized in different ways. For instance, the treatment of sex offenders
and former inmates may differ markedly from that of gang members. Knowledge of these various
populations is informative for theoretical and social advancement. Second, statistics demonstrate
that gang membership constitutes a nontrivial proportion of the population of those residing in high-
risk neighborhoods. Specifically, when looking at high-crime and high-risk neighborhoods, as many
as 29%of girls and 32%of boys claim membership (National Gang Intelligence Center, 2009).
Consequently, understanding how stigma permeates the lives of these individuals can inform policy
and enhance our understanding of the elements that are needed for more effective gang prevention
and intervention efforts (Howell, 2012).
Given the limited body of stigmatization research on gang members, the current study seeks to
explore the stigmas that former gang members experience and anticipate from law enforcement and
the general public (including employers), specifically as it relates to discrimination. The emphasis
on former gang members (who on average have been out of the gang for 11 years in our sample) is
especially valuable because it highlights the magnitude and enduring impact of a stigmatized
identity. Although the current study does not address the disengagement process itself, it provides
an important look at perceptions of experienced and anticipated stigma that results directly from a
former gang identity. This study is not meant to be comparative (i.e., examining differences in
stigma between former gang members and sex offenders/former inmates) but rather an extension of
previous literature given the virtual absence of research examining stig ma among former gang
members (however, see Rosen & Cruz, 2018, for the exception). Given the exploratory nature of
this inquiry, qualitative analysis of in-depth interviews with former gang members was conducted,
resulting in major themes that are reflective of these realities.
Stigma and Deviant Groups
Since Goffman’s (1963) seminal work, stigma research has proliferated in various disciplines and
has become a sensitizing concept in a variety of scholarship including research on mental illness
(Gerlinger et al., 2013; O
¨stman & Kjellin, 2002), tattooing (Larsen, Patterson, & Markham, 2014;
Phillips, 2001), murderers (May, 2000), sex offenders (Burchfield & Mingus, 2008; Evans &
Cubellis, 2015), sexually transmitted diseases (Nack, 2000), exotic dancing (Bradley, 2007; Lewis,
1998; W. E. Thompson, Harred, & Burks, 2003), and the lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgendered
communities (Kaufman & Johnson, 2004). Despite some definitional ambiguity, stigma is com-
monly understood as an “attribute that is deeply discrediting” (Goffman, 1963, p. 3) and includes
Lee and Bubolz 65

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