School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics - Research Activities - Dr. Sanders

Project Title: Youth Gangs: Drug Use, Sexual Behavior, Violence, and HIV Risk

Researchers: Bill Sanders, California State University, Los Angeles (Principal Investigator)
Stephen E. Lankenau, University of Southern California/Childrens Hospital Los Angeles (Co-investigator)

Funding Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse (R03 DA 020410-01) from August 2005 through June, 2008

Purpose: The research had one general question: How do behaviors commonly associated with youth gang members, such as drug use, violence, and sexual activity, shape HIV risk and other negative health and social outcomes? In answering this question, the research sought to address the following aims: Aim 1) Develop an epidemiologic description of the distribution of drug use, sexual risk and violence among youth gang members; Aim 2) Describe HIV risk and other health risks in relation to drug use, violence, and sexual activity among youth gang members; Aim 3) Develop ethno-epidemiological methods to sample and compare different populations of youth gang members and; Aim 4) Examine how existing theories on violence, drug use, and sexual risks explain behaviors among youth gang members.

Data: Data were collected through in-depth interviews with gang-identified youth (n=60) between July 2006 and December 2007 in three distinct geographical areas in the City of Los Angeles: East (East Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights); West (Culver City, Venice, Santa Monica) and South (Inglewood, Arlington Heights, South Los Angeles). All interviews were arranged by gang interventionists or specialists that work with high risk youth within community based organizations (CBOs). All interviews were conducted by Dr. Sanders within private locations within the CBOs or at restaurants nearby.

The sample was predominately male (n=54). While the age range was 16 to 25 years old, the majority of the youth interviewed were teenagers. All youth identified as either African-American, Latino or ‘mixed race’, consisting of African-American/Latino, African-American/white, and Latino/white youths.

Findings: Drug use, unsafe sexual behaviors and violence were pervasive among the sample. For instance, most of the youth were sexually active, and had initiated sex between the ages of nine and 21 years, with a mean age at sexual initiation of 13.5 years old – years lower than the national average. Moreover, over one-third did not use condoms sex initiation, and a similar amount had not used a condom at most recent sex. Youth recalled up to 100 different sex partners, with two youth mentioning ‘too many too count.’ Almost one-quarter of the youth reported group sex. About one in ten feel ‘very likely’ or ‘likely’ they will one day become infected with HIV.
Youth mentioned about 21 fights in their lifetime, though nearly half mentioned ‘too many fights to count.’ Almost all of the youth have been ‘jumped’ – a surprise attack involving at least two (and often more) attackers, and four in five have jumped other people. Over one-third have been hospitalized due to fighting for such injuries as deep cuts requiring stitches, broken bones, head trauma, dislocated joints, and torn/sprained muscles. Just over one in ten have been shot and four in five have been shot at.  Many of the youth have been involved in group ‘rumbles’ or ‘riots’, which are collective forms of fighting involving dozens of individuals – both during and outside periods of incarceration – where the reported use of weapons and injuries were more common. About three-fourths of the youth feel very likely/likely that they will one day be shot and killed, and more than two-thirds feel the same will happen to a loved one.
Almost all youth had used marijuana and alcohol, and about half reported marijuana use within the previous 30-days. Around one-third reported ever using ecstasy, crystal methamphetamine, crack cocaine, and powder cocaine. Nearly one-quarter reported ever using PCP, psilocybin mushrooms, and inhalants. The sample also reported the non-medical use of prescription drugs, particularly opiates. Moreover, three-fourths reported polydrug use – the simultaneous or sequential use of two or more substances. Popular combinations included alcohol and marijuana, but also alcohol, marijuana and either cocaine or crystal methamphetamine. Youth also discussed smoking marijuana joints that contained crack cocaine, crystal methamphetamine, ecstasy, and/or a variety of prescription drugs in powder form.

Overarching Conclusions: Many of the youth reported extreme levels of participation in violence, substance use, and risky sexual practices and the related negative health outcomes. Gang intervention and prevention services in Los Angeles and elsewhere might be best served by incorporating a public health model geared towards these behaviors and their effects.

Related Publications (Students logging on through their CSULA accounts will have free access to these journal publications)

Sanders, B., Lankenau, S., & Jackson Bloom, J. (in press) Risky Sexual Behaviors among a Sample of Gang-identified Youth in Los Angeles. The Journal of Equity in Health Special Guest Editors TT Sharpe, JW Stallworth, K S Miller, HD Dean, & K Fenton (Center for Disease Control and Prevention).

Sanders, B., Lankenau, S., & Jackson Bloom, J. (in press) Putting in Work: Qualitative Research on Substance Use and Other Risk Behaviors among Gang Youth in Los Angeles. Substance Use and Misuse: Special Edition on Qualitative Research on Substance Use. Guest Editors: Avelardo Valdez and Stephen J. Sifaneck.

Sanders, B., Schneiderman, J.U., Loken, A., Lankenau, SE., and Jackson Bloom, J., (2009) Gang Youth as a Vulnerable Population for Nursing Intervention. Public Health Nursing 26 (4), p. 346-352.

Click here:

Sanders, B., Lankenau, S., & Jackson Bloom, J. (2008) A Study of Risk Behaviors among Gang Youth in Los Angeles: Overview of Key Findings (Unpublished report for community members.)

Click here: A Study of Risk Behaviors among Gang Youth in Los Angeles.

Sanders, B. & Lankenau, S. (2006) A Public Health Model for Studying Youth Gangs. In J. Short and L. Hughes (eds., pp. 117-128) Studying Youth Gangs.  Latham, MD: Altamira Press.