LOS ANGELES -- When Lewis Yablonsky was growing up in New Jersey in the 1930s, he was beaten by poor whites for being Jewish and by black gangs for being white. He committed petty thefts, ran crooked card games and carried a switchblade for protection. Some of his closest friends wound up behind bars.

"I wasn't sure where I belonged," he told the Los Angeles Times years later. "But . . . I realized I had to get on one side of the law or the other."

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Yablonsky chose the straight path, using his rough-and-tumble youth as a springboard to a distinguished career. The longtime professor of sociology at California State University, Northridge, Yablonsky, who gained prominence as a sociologist, criminologist and author, died Jan. 29 of natural causes at his home in Santa Monica, said his son, Mitch. He was 89.

Yablonsky was known for his practical approach. He worked with members of New York City street gangs in the tense "West Side Story" era of the 1950s, producing a socio-psychological study of "losers trying to be winners" in his first book, "The Violent Gang" (1962).

He also worked in prisons to rehabilitate inmates and in later decades testified as an expert witness. In 1993 his testimony rebutting a theory about the behavior of individuals in a mob helped put Damian Williams in prison for the beating of truck driver Reginald Denny after the 1992 Los Angeles riots.-- Los Angeles Times