ATLANTA — Keith Strickland knows firsthand what it's like growing up as a teen with a criminal background.
"I’m from Atlanta, Georgia. I grew up right here in the streets. I started selling drugs when I was 12 years old myself. I became a career criminal," he told 11Alive
Strickland said he was never part of a gang but got into shootouts on a regular basis. Now he works closely with troubled youth and gang members through his organization Making the Transition.
"Our kids are not terrorists, they’re not horrible people. They’re misguided, abandoned, and alone," he told 11Alive.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has identified at least 170 different criminal gangs across the state.
Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr even said investigators have linked 60% of all violent crime around the state to gang affiliations.
But according to Strickland, those statistics don't tell the whole story, starting with how preteens are lured and groomed by older kids and young adults to join those gangs.
"The gang is the most accessible, readily available and the gang is the one that reaches them directly in the community where they are. So when you look at a lot of kids joining gangs, you’re looking at a lot of kids trying to build an extended family," he explained.
Shar Bates, the founder of the nonprofit Breaking the Chains, said it's the gangs whose crimes yield income and economic opportunities which are the root of the problem.
"If your only option is $10-$15 an hour job and by the time you get done it's half with taxes and gas, and all of these things vs something that you can make that paycheck in a day...It's hard for some teens to avoid the street life because of the way the system is set up," she explained.
Bates even pointed to her car recently being broken into, adding "the only thing they took was food."
It's a perspective on the issue which Strickland also shares.
"I made over hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of money selling drugs before I could read or do any of the basic things in school," he said.
However, he pointed out red flags of gang involvement that parents should be aware of, such as:
- A quick shift in your child's attitude or personality
- Hanging with older kids they weren't friends with before
- Wearing the same colors often
- Not wanting to hang around family or old friends
- A preference for music that highlights crime
The GBI said there are about 446 open gang-related cases across the state. However, activists state the only way to get rid of these gangs, is to eliminate the need our children have for them.