Criminologist Sets Sights on Gang Activity in Central Valley

Huan Gao spent seven years shedding light on the previously unexamined issue of drug use among women in her native country of China. Now she's turning her attention to an important local issue that has been similarly neglected.

Gao, a criminology professor at CSU Stanislaus, is in the early stages of research on juvenile gang activity in the Central Valley. She hopes to use information gathered from the interviews and from local and county criminal justice agencies to gain insight into gang members' backgrounds, risk factors, territories, arrests and convictions.

With its location on the drug trafficking route from Mexico and its own issues with club drugs — along with the increasing gang activity — the Valley is ripe for criminology research, Gao said.

"I hope my research on gangs in the Central Valley will help guide future anti-gang initiatives in the region," Gao said. "This is a major issue for our area and the nation, and one that will require serious thought and study if we are going to address it in a meaningful way."

Research on gangs in the Central Valley is scarce, Gao said, as was research on drug use in China before she returned there as a Rutgers University Ph.D. student in 2005. She interviewed 90 women during her first trip, and after joining the CSU Stanislaus Criminal Justice department as a professor in 2007, she returned to China for 41 additional interviews and re-interviews.

The experience was enlightening but sometimes harrowing. Gao sat in observation for two hours in one small home, watching and documenting a woman's laborious but ultimately successful self-injection of heroin. Many of the women she interviewed were prostitutes, several have been infected with HIV, and three have since died.

Gao's heroin research led to the publication in 2011 of her first book, "Women and Heroin Addiction in China's Changing Society." She returned to China that year with a new focus on club drugs such as ecstasy and methamphetamine, which are growing in popularity and increasingly becoming the source of criminal activity there.

In 2012, Gao received the Wang Family Faculty Award — which provides four $10,000 stipends per year to allow CSU professors to teach and conduct research at universities in China — and used the stipend to finalize her research on club drugs. She hopes to publish a book or a series of journal articles on the subject, which has been infrequently studied despite the increasing social consequences of club drug use.

Before moving into academia, Gao graduated from law school in China and worked as a lawyer in the 1990s. She said that experience has helped her relate to interview subjects with severe drug addiction and criminal offenses, including drug trafficking and prostitution.

"I've learned how to build a rapport with people from different backgrounds," Gao said. "I care about the individuals, and people can tell. You're concerned about their life and their story, and people appreciate that."

For her research on juvenile gang members in the Valley, Gao will employ four CSU Stanislaus undergraduate students as research assistants. Some of them speak Spanish fluently, Gao said, which will help them communicate with and gain the trust of Hispanic gang members.

She is also working with the Stanislaus County Probation Department to help coordinate the study. Gao is hoping to secure futher research funding in order to expand the study to San Joaquin and Merced counties.

"As a criminologist, locating major crime issues with regional or national significance is crucial," Gao said. "But sufficient research funding and support from the local criminal justice agencies will be the key to success."