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Why Do Some Teens Join Gangs?

Gangs are a major problem in urban areas, and now scientists have discovered that boys who carry a particular variation of a gene known as MAOA, which is sometimes called the "warrior gene," are more likely not only to join gangs but also to be among the most violent members and to use weapons. This finding does not apply to girls (who also join gangs).

Biosocial criminologist Kevin M. Beaver says, "While gangs typically have been regarded as a sociological phenomenon, our investigation shows that variants of a specific MAOA gene plays a significant role. Previous research has linked low-activity MAOA variants to a wide range of antisocial, even violent, behavior, but our study confirms that these variants can predict gang membership. Moreover, we found that variants of this gene could distinguish gang members who were markedly more likely to behave violently and use weapons from members who were less likely to do either."

The MAOA gene affects levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin that are related to mood and behavior, and those variants that are related to violence are hereditary. Some previous studies have found the "warrior gene" to be more prevalent in cultures that are typified by warfare and aggression.

Since so many gang members are either black or Hispanic (mainly from Mexico), this could point to the fact that this gene variation is more common in those races. African tribes, like American Indians, often engaged in warfare with one another. Most Mexicans, however, are fairly mild-mannered, despite some aggressive "macho" in the male part of the population. The reason for their inclusion be that Mexico was heavily colonized by outsiders (in this case from Spain) and thus the warrior gene might have been essential to male survival. The same thing holds true for Africa, which was colonized by Europeans from various countries.

"What's interesting about the MAOA gene is its location on the X-chromosome," Beaver says. "As a result, males, who have one X-chromosome and one Y-chromosome, possess only one copy of this gene, while females, who have two X-chromosomes, carry two. Thus, if a male has a variant for the MAOA gene that is linked to violence, there isn't another copy to counteract it. Females, in contrast, have two copies, so even if they have one risk variant, they have another gene that could compensate for it."

If these kids land in jail, how can we prevent them (as well as adult criminals) from going right back into the world of crime when they back? Relocation substantially lowers the likelihood of re-incarceration for parolees, according to new research at The University of Texas at Austin.

Using the occurrence of Hurricane Katrina, which forced many people in New Orleans neighborhoods to relocate, as a natural experiment, sociologist David Kirk examined how a change of residence helps prevent criminals who have been released from prison from returning to their old ways.

He discovered that ex-prisoners who were relocated away from their prior residence were 15% less likely to be re-incarcerated within the first year of their release from prison. Kirk says, "Successful prisoner reintegration depends, in part, on providing opportunities for prisoners to separate from their criminal past. Prisoners typically return home to the same crime-producing environment, with the same criminal opportunities and peers that proved so detrimental prior to incarceration. We may find that Hurricane Katrina led to positive outcomes for this particular slice of the population. The lesson may be that residential change can lead to a turning point in the lives of parolees."

Hey, stick with our gang and you can't go wrong: we have lots of fun! And if you love us, show your colors!

Art credit: Dreamstime.com

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