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Tailored support and role models important to leave gang crime

Joining a criminal gang is easy. Leaving it is much more difficult, as most gang members are unsure as to how normal life, without the gang, works. In order to succeed, structured support and different types of resources that can be tailored for the individual are needed. This is shown in a new study by researchers at Linnaeus University and University of Gothenburg.

“We found two recurring motives for joining a gang. One was hope for individual success. The other was the promise of a sense of community that would not let you down – what is sometimes referred to as a brotherhood”, says Torbjörn Forkby, professor of social work at Linnaeus University.

Together with his colleague Kristina Alstam at University of Gothenburg, Forkby has studied what it is like to leave a gang to build a new life. They have interviewed people who have done this as well as people who work to make these defections possible and support those who choose to leave a gang.

Seeing yourself as several possible selves

Torbjörn Forkby
Torbjörn Forkby,professor of social work at Linnaeus University.

In their study, the researchers ask questions about what changes it brought for the individual to join the gang, and what it took to find a way out.

“It turned out that joining the gang generally was not considered a big crime. They believed that they had become ‘qualified’ to join the gang over a longer period of time and started thinking of themselves as potential members. This, in turn, can be linked to experiencing that you do not really fit in normal contexts, like at school or perhaps in club activities or associations. In the gang, they could be respected”, Forkby continues.

However, the gang did not meet the expectations for sense of community and success, which had been mediated through rumors and status symbols.

“Instead, life in the gang became a constant navigation exercise, with high levels of stress and palpable threats from other groupings, but also from within the own group. Combined with various life events and increased maturity, the hopes for life in the gang started crumbling and they started having doubts about the chosen path”, Forkby explains.

Difficult to function in normal life

Before those interviewed joined the gangs, they could see themselves as taking on a gang role. However, now, when they wanted to leave the gangs, the number of possible selves that would work in normal life were significantly fewer.

“How to withdraw cash from an ATM? How to be a good dad? What does fixing your relations with near and loved ones involve? How to give a good impression at a job interview?”, Forkby asks.

Kristina Alstam
Kristina Alstam, senior lecturer in social work at University of Gothenburg.

Questions like these made the process of leaving the gang unclear and full of risk, at least for those who had been deeply involved in gang life. Therefore, these people could need extensive support along the road.

Many gang defectors talk of the importance of having a role model. Someone who understands what they are going through and shows them what a new life can look like.

The study indicates that affinity with someone who has been through a similar experience, who can show that there is a way out of gang crime, is of immense importance for those who want to exit a gang”, says Kristina Alstam.

Support must be tailored

In their study, Forkby and Alstam also reason on the design of such support. They mean that the support must be clearly structured and comprise different resources, but it must also be tailored for the individual to be successful.

“We are talking about a smorgasbord of possibilities. That is to say, there is a certain structure and a selection of different dishes to choose between – but what is chosen must be put in relation to the needs of the individual”, Forkby explains.

“First, one must consider the need for protection and safety if there is a threat. Then you must get in place a different structure to life than before, through everyday activities. After that, you must work with the inner structure and, finally, this change must be stabilised.

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