Desistance within an urban Aboriginal gang

AuthorLarry Morrissette,Denis C. Bracken,Lawrence Deane
Date01 June 2007
Publication Date01 June 2007
Desistance within an urban Aboriginal gang1
Lawrence Deane, University of Manitoba
Denis C. Bracken, University of Manitoba
Larry Morrissette, Ogijiita Pimatiswin Kinamatwin program
Abstract The research presented in this paper is related to an ongoing program
in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada involving members of an urban Aboriginal street
gang. Gang members recently released from prison have for a variety of reasons
become interested in leaving behind the criminal part of their gang involvement,
and developing lifestyles less likely to bring them into conf‌lict with the law. For the
men in this study, desistance from crime did not necessarily mean a departure
from the gang itself. Rather, they see themselves as having taken a conscious
decision not to be involved in criminal activity, but not to leave the gang. The
scheme works with them on learning carpentry skills as part of an urban housing
renovation project. A major part of the program is the encouragement of pro-
social values through traditional Aboriginal cultural teachings. Use of the ‘gang’
ethic builds teamwork and commitment not to reoffend among members.
Keywords desistance, gangs, Aboriginal offenders, cultural teachings, offending
A focus on the question of why people desist from crime has emerged as a signif‌i-
cant area of research and theoretical development in criminology. Research has
long identif‌ied age as a major factor in desistance. Other factors such as changes
in life circumstances related to marriage and a family, and employment, are all
considered to be important to the process by which someone leaves a pattern of
criminal offending. In much of the discussion, desistance has been seen as an
individual action. In recent literature, however, there has been a shift to exploring
the social context of desistance. What is not clear is the impact that strong social
Probation Journal
The Journal of Community and Criminal Justice
Copyright © 2007 NAPO Vol 54(2): 125–141
DOI: 10.1177/0264550507077231
networks and related social capital, such as those which make up involvement in
a gang, might have on desistance.
This research is intended to provide some insight into the issue of desistance
from gang-related criminal activity by considering how a group of young men, all
of whom are members of an urban Aboriginal gang, made decisions to desist from
crime and participate in a program which supported these decisions. In this study
the term ‘gang’ refers to what Klein (1995) and others (Decker and Van Winkle,
1996) would call a ‘street’ gang. It is a group that has a criminal orientation,
geographic terrain, self recognition in terms of colours, tattoos and insignia, and
an organizational structure. Klein differentiates street gangs from other criminal
organizations such as motorcycle gangs or drug cartels by arguing that crime is
a critical but not the sole orientation of the group. Leadership and organizational
structure may be shifting and fragmented. Street gangs tend to engage in leisure
and social activities as much, or more, than they do in planned and organized
criminal acts. Street gangs are, however, capable of serious and lethal violence
and do engage in some organized criminal activity. The Criminal Intelligence
Service of Canada (2004) describes the specif‌ic gang to which participants in this
program belong in terms that f‌it Klein’s description of a street gang.
For the men in this study, desistance from crime did not necessarily mean a
departure from the gang itself, at least not in the short run. On the contrary the
subjects did not consider themselves as having left the gang to which they have
belonged for some time. Rather, they see themselves as having taken a conscious
decision not to be involved in criminal activity, but not to leave the gang. Further,
the research suggests that the other gang members generally respected the
decisions of these young men, and were in fact supportive.
The decision to stay away from crime was connected with participation in a
program which provides both a modest income and the opportunity to learn
marketable skills. Participants (all gang members with criminal records) learn
carpentry skills through housing renovations in an inner city area characterized
by, among other indicators of poverty and exclusion, older and deteriorating
housing. It provides comprehensive supports in terms of paying a salary based on
an hourly wage (a few dollars above the minimum wage level), counselling,
referral to educational opportunities, and encouragement in pro-social values
through traditional North American Aboriginal cultural teachings.
The context: Aboriginal people in prairie cities
The experience of Aboriginal persons in Canada can be considered one of multiple
marginality (Vigil, 2003). On a wide range of demographic measures the circum-
stances of Aboriginal persons are characterized by deprivation. Life expectancy for
Aboriginal men is seven years shorter than for non-Aboriginals, according to the
Canadian Council on Social Development (CCSD) (Anderson, 2003). Suicide is two
to three times more common among Aboriginal people than non-Aboriginals, and
it is f‌ive to six times more prevalent among Aboriginal youth than non-Aboriginals.
Over half (52.1%) of Aboriginal children live in poverty compared to 23.4 per cent
Probation Journal
126 54(2)

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