Gangs are something I find really interesting from an academic standpoint, and incredibly destructive from a social service provider view. My work at Idealistics allows me to work with organizations that address a multitude of problems like poverty, homelessness, drug abuse, etc. We've done a bit of work on gang issues, such as connecting people to services when they re-enter society from prisons, as well as some data analysis work.
Today I met with the Executive Director of the Violence Prevention Coalition of Greater Los Angeles who gave, in part, a childhood development angle on why kids get involved in gangs, and especially gang violence. He said that most kids engage in sports as a way of getting out physical energy as well as learning important social skills and determining what it is they are good at. Sports, he said, are one way we prove ourselves as kids. Youth who fall into gangs don't have access to such outlets, perhaps they are academically ineligible to play sports at school, or they aren't even in school.
Therefore, the gang not only provides a family support structure that a youth might be seeking, but it also provides the opportunity to prove ones self, both through physical prowess as well as leadership acumen. If it is true that gangs fill, in part, the needs of these kids to use their physical skills and grow as individuals (albeit in a destructive way) then it would make sense to provide youth sports programs specifically for these kids.
The problem, of course, is that these are difficult kids to work with. Existing recreation programs have any number of requirements that make them exclusionary to this demographic, such as fees, academic eligibility standards, behavioral standards of conduct, etc. Also, such programs, even if available to all people, are not as aggressively marketed to those susceptible to falling into gangs as gangs themselves are.
I often write about how the data should guide intervention strategies. In this case, assuming the above analysis is true, and it were to bear out empirically, then it seems we are missing a big opportunity to help provide structure and outlets to kids who currently end up as gang members.