Youth Gang Exit: A Canadian Perspective

Youth Gang Exit: A Canadian Perspective

Laura Dunbar (University of Ottawa, Canada)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-9938-0.ch007
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Abstract

Youth gangs and their members have been studied in a variety of contexts; however the issue of desistance has received less attention. This chapter seeks to address this gap. In order to situate the material to be covered, the chapter begins with an introduction to the topic of youth gangs. Next, an overview of the concept of desistance and how it is measured is provided. Following that is a review of some prominent criminological perspectives demonstrating that leaving the gang is a complex process involving the interaction of a combination of factors. The process of desistance and methods for leaving the gang are also briefly discussed. Several approaches have been developed to address youth gangs and their members. These approaches are reviewed and different interventions under these headings are discussed with Canadian examples provided. Finally, an argument for the development of a comprehensive strategy for youth gang exit is presented.
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Introduction

In Nasty, Brutish, and Short: The Lives of Gang Members in Canada, Totten (2012) draws upon in-depth interviews with 519 gang members over the past 17 years. He explores the process of gang exit, his arguments supplemented by the stories of his participants. Charlie, aged 24 and a long-time gang member, discusses the process of leaving the lifestyle:

I came to a long-sought conclusion that I wanted to exit gang life and my current status in gangs which is high. Regardless, this proved to be difficult due to my lifestyle and reputation, which has always preceded me… Gangs, as you know, are difficult to exit. After years of being involved my life is woven deep in the fabric of the gang… I need help and support. (p. 200)

OTTAWA, ON – Canada’s capital city is known for politics but now is earning a reputation for gang violence. A record number of gang-related shootings in 2014 have left residents wondering if the normally sleepy city has changed. Marc Clairoux understands the allure of gangs all too well. He joined a neighbourhood gang in west-end Ottawa at 13, then a skinhead gang at 18 – all for the feeling of family and belonging. “Close friends of mine were dying”, says Clairoux, who spent 17 years in the gang before leaving almost a decade ago. “It was an ugly way to live and I had to just take a look at myself and my family and think that I need to get away from this.” Clairoux notes that he didn’t find gang involvement was worth it in the end. “I’ve had so many restrictions put on my life because of it.” It’s a feeling Clairoux recalls as he hears of a record increase in gun violence in the nation’s capital. The gang is a difficult thing to leave and an exit strategy is required (excerpts from Stone, 2014).

Gangs and gang members have been studied in a variety of contexts; information has been gained about the history, demographics, subcultures, criminal involvement, membership patterns, and group processes. Yet not all stages of gang involvement have received equal attention. Most of the research has focused on the processes of joining or of maintaining membership over time; the question of desistance has received much less attention.

This chapter seeks to address this gap and is laid out as follows. First, in order to situate the material to be covered, the chapter begins with an introduction to the topic of youth gangs. Next, an overview of the concept of desistance and how it is measured is provided. Following that is a review of some prominent criminological perspectives demonstrating that leaving the gang is a complex process involving the interaction of a combination of factors, including: maturation; individual choice; relational, social, and institutional forces and practices; and structural level constraints and opportunities. The process of desistance and methods for leaving the gang is also briefly discussed. Several approaches have been developed to address youth gangs and their members. These approaches are reviewed and different interventions under these headings are discussed with Canadian examples provided. Finally, an argument for the development of a comprehensive strategy for youth gang exit is presented.

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