The last defence against gang crime: Exploring community approaches to gang member reintegration - part I

Armon J. Tamatea
Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, University of Waikato

Author biography:

Armon Tamatea1, PhD; PGDipPsych(Clin), is a registered clinical psychologist and Senior Lecturer at the University of Waikato where he principally teaches in the post-graduate clinical psychology programme. He was senior adviser (psychological research) for the Department of Corrections before assuming an academic post where he has continued to develop his special interests in New Zealand gangs in criminal justice, psychopathic personality, and the role of culture in criminal justice and forensic contexts.
He currently divides his working time between research, teaching, supervision, and clinical practice.

Author contact:

Editor’s note

Corrections is part of the Whole of Government Action Plan on Gangs, which was initiated in 2014 to reduce the harm gangs cause to families and communities. In May 2017 we launched the Corrections Gang Strategy (CGS).

The CGS programme will be delivered over the next five years and aligns to the Whole of Government Action Plan on Gangs. Our aim is to:

  • contain the negative influence of gang members in the custodial environment
  • disrupt the efforts and capabilities of gang members under our management to organise and commit crime from within prisons and in the community
  • reduce the re-offending rates of gang members and the harm caused by gangs in prisons and the community.

The relationship between gang members and crime has been well-documented, with the general picture of identified gang members tending to commit crimes more frequently than other offenders (Decker, Katz & Webb, 2008; Fleisher & Decker, 2001; Tito & Ridgeway, 2007). Such a finding is not surprising given the range of offence-specific dynamic factors that are at play with individuals who devote much of their time and energy into activities that are concomitant with membership in an antisocial group. However, what is less known is the process of desistance from crime with gang members, how this occurs, and what critical factors are involved in facilitating this transition.

Arguably, an individual’s associations with antisocial peers presents as the most complex of the ‘big four’2 risk factors. Associations with procriminal peers locates an individual into a relationship, or network of relationships, that cue, shape, reinforce and likely generalise procriminal thinking and offending behaviour. Although gangs are a largely under-researched population in New Zealand, it is known that gang members are over-represented in higher risk offender categories (Tamatea, 2010). For instance, Department of Corrections data has revealed that identified gang members are nearly three times more likely than non-gang-affiliated offenders to be reconvicted and reimprisoned following release (Nadesu, 2009).

Gangs: Definition and challenges

Defining gangs is a long-standing issue in gang research (Decker, Melde, & Pyrooz, 2013; Esbensen, Winfree, He & Taylor, 2001; Wood & Alleyne, 2010). Some of the earliest 20th century accounts of gangs described spontaneous groupings of young males who would spend time planning and executing petty thefts, and drinking alcohol, but who also engaged in playground activities and sports. Gangs, in this respect, were seen as a normative aspect of boyhood development (Puffer, 1912). Later works emphasised antisociality, and the relationship between these groups and social structures (e.g. Thrasher, 1927), rival groups (Sullivan, 2005; Yablonsky, 1962), and the law (Knox, 2009). Klein and Maxson (2006) developed an explicit gang ‘typology’ that defined these groups by membership size, age range, lifespan, supposed geographical ‘territory’, and degree of members’ criminal versatility – recognising antisociality as a critical feature of interest to criminal justice agencies that largely distinguishes these groups from other collectives.

The international research literature on gangs has tended to focus on youth (e.g. Pyrooz & Decker, 2011; Decker, Pyrooz, & Moule, 2014), which is not surprising given that adolescent males present as an especially risky group under known theories of crime. However, it is not uncommon to find gang members – particularly in New Zealand – maintain their memberships well into their adult years (e.g. Gilbert, 2013; Isaac, 2007; Payne, 1997).

The high level of crime committed by identified gang members in prison and the community is a critical concern for correctional agencies (Kinnear, 2009). For instance, departmental statistics indicate that identified gang members tend to have higher Risk of Re-conviction/Risk of Re-Imprisonment (RoC*RoI) scores than all offenders combined3, meaning that gang members are more likely to re-offend following release from prison than offenders who do not have such affiliations. Whilst it is acknowledged that gang membership alone presents specific crime-related problems in New Zealand and international jurisdictions (Ellis, Beaver & Wright, 2009; Kinnear, 2009; Knox, 2009), the reintegrative implications for these (usually) men4 is seldom explored.

Offender rehabilitation and integration

The Risk-Need-Responsivity (RNR; Andrews & Bonta, 2010) model is an heuristic of effective offender rehabilitation and provides an empirically-informed rationale for agencies to allocate and manage (usually limited) resources to optimise community safety and offender interventions, and support case managed approaches to offender rehabilitation and reintegration. However, it is recognised that processes and causal mechanisms that facilitate desistance from crime are still poorly understood (Porporino, 2010). Serin and Lloyd (2009) note a variety of critical factors that are presumed to contribute to the crime/desistance trajectory, such as age, stable employment, prosocial associations, and self-efficacy. Furthermore, a number of these factors may involve emergent properties that are more salient at some parts of the process than others by virtue of natural processes (e.g. aging and lifestyle stability) or as a consequence of prior issues being addressed, such as ‘readiness to change’ as a prerequisite for programme engagement.

Protective factors (i.e. characteristics and circumstances that are associated with reduced chances of criminal activity; Andrews & Bonta, 2010) can take the shape of internal attributes, such as responsiveness to treatment and authority, as well as external assets like stable employment and accommodation, and a social support network that is able to elicit a sufficient degree of restraint from the individual. The differences between recidivists and non-recidivists included relationship problems, negative emotionality, access to drugs and substance abuse, unemployment or financial woes prior to reconviction, fewer criminal associates, more realistic expectations of post-release life, and access to community resources (Bucklen & Zajac, 2009; Zamble & Quinsey, 1997). However, the role of protective factors with gang members is even less known. A recent New Zealand study (Tamatea, 2010) that explored the experiences of men who had left gangs revealed a series of life transitions, not unlike Serin and Lloyd’s (2009) process that revealed the impact of gang membership on their lives. For some, these life changes continued well into their fourth and fifth decades. The core transitional themes are displayed in Table 1, and reflect a dynamic lifespan process. Gang involvement was considered by these men to be most central in earlier stages due to multiple types of rewards accessible through membership, but limit the individual to a restricted antisocial set – maintaining conditions unfavourable to behaviour and lifestyle change. However, consistent with crime/desistance theories, opportunities for change emerge at later stages (i.e. exit) as life roles change (e.g. a new relationship5, becoming a parent) with accompanying realignment of values that can contribute to behaviour change.

Table 1

Summary of transitional themes throughout gang lifestyle process (Tamatea, 2010)


Transitional theme

Early experiences

  • Dysfunction at home   (neglect, abuse, poor role models)
  • Difficulties in   school (under- achievement,   truancy)
  • Delinquent lifestyle (unstructured,   peer choices)


  • Acceptance of similar peers
  • Attitudes towards   employment, institutions, and authority
  • Anxiety about victimisation
  • Attractions to gang lifestyle   (potential material/social rewards)




  • Reputation
  • Relationships   (strong and exclusive) with peers
  • Rewards (actual   material/ social)
  • Structural markers   in lifestyle (role and meaning)
  • Social controls   from members and associates
  • Shared identity




  • Disillusionment   with promises of longer-term lifestyle
  • Deterioration of   peer relationships
  • Desensitisation to rewards
  • Realignment of   values (e.g. maturation, social responsibility)
  • Role change (e.g. grandparent, partner)
  • Ritual, or exit strategy




  • Fears of reprisal/ostracism
  • Frustrations with challenges in new lifestyle
  • Future-focus on sustainable new lifestyle
  • Family and responsibility for future generations
  • Freedom and increased autonomy

Whereas risk factors emphasise variables that contribute to offending behaviour, a consideration of protective factors as catalysts or triggers for desistance would necessarily involve a consideration of positive life domains (e.g. family, workplace, social and spiritual spheres), their salience, feasibility, and pathways towards obtaining engagement in those areas.

Impact of gangs on reintegration and behaviour change

Behaviour change is central to the challenge of addressing offending behaviour and promoting desistance from crime. In the context of theories of crime and desistance, behaviour change may be conceived of as an emergent property that develops as part of gradual life processes (e.g. cognitive maturation) and/or critical life events (i.e. turning points). Behaviour change, in this context, means altering behavioural responses as a form of problem solving, and can involve targeting discrete behavioural events (e.g. reducing verbal abuse towards staff) to larger complex patterns (e.g. reducing criminal activity). Arguably, the role of gangs in an individual’s life can present as a central issue to be addressed as well as a barrier to achieving other goals.

Initial challenges to be addressed in any form of non-coercive behaviour change include (1) problem identification, (2) problem definition, and (3) developing a commitment for change (Kanfer & Schefft, 1988). Prochaska and Norcross (2014) identified common factors of effective interventions such as (1) the individual’s expectations that change is possible, particularly in the context of (2) a strong therapeutic alliance – both factors that are consistent with DRAOR (Dynamic Risk Assessment for Offender Re-entry) protective items such as high expectations and cost/benefit (expectation) as well as responsiveness to advice, social support, and social control (alliance).

In addition to the challenges that undermine an individual’s efforts to develop an offence-free lifestyle, gang membership presents a specific set of issues that compromise community integration for many individuals. Fleisher and Decker (2001) identified the following issues as critical factors that undermine desistance efforts by gang members.

Gangs facilitate crime

The structural nature of gangs draws individuals into networks that allow for easy alignment with other members, and offer social support and reinforcement for antisocial behaviour that may have been circumvented in the absence of these relationships. Furthermore, because gangs that have an overt antisocial culture and focus accelerate the frequency and severity of crime, membership in these groups may exert a considerable effect on an individual’s criminal behaviour.

Gangs are social groups with longevity

Gangs often persist longer than individual members, as evidenced by traditional gangs (Klein & Maxson, 2006) – some of which were established over half a century ago6. That gangs have persisted and, arguably, expanded in number (and influence) suggests that conditions exist in some New Zealand communities to support gang emergence. Furthermore, established gangs offer the lure of lucrative economic and social opportunities that are incommensurate with mainstream communities.

Self-identification to a gang

The personal (and sometimes economic) costs of gang initiation and exit rites indicate the importance held by these groups for long-term membership. Indeed, although gangs are typically regarded as a youth phenomenon, members have been known to retain membership well into their adult years. In New Zealand, the average age of identified gang members serving community sentences has been estimated at 30 years of age, with some members in their 60s (Tamatea, 2010). Gang membership also offers significant social ties and friendships that promote a sense of belonging to a local-area network and are predicated on shared histories, experiences, and knowledge.

Self-identification as self-definition

Being a gang member may be a vital element in the self-concept of a member. The benefits of membership, such as identity, friendship, and communion with a marginal community, offer meaning and value in these contexts and are often in contrast to ‘failed’ experiences and minimal ties with mainstream society.

Marginality of gang members

International research on gangs (e.g. Fleisher & Decker, 2001) emphasises the economic and social marginality of gang members – particularly committed members who are most likely to be involved in criminal conduct serious enough to warrant imprisonment. Furthermore, the inevitable isolation and stigmatisation that is experienced, and perpetuated, by these groups can threaten increased marginalisation by virtue of a ‘triple minority’ status; that is, prejudice by virtue of (1) the public perception of gangs as intimidating (Kelsey, 1982), (2) negative attitudes towards (ex-) offenders (Ritchie & Ritchie, 1993), and (3) existing social prejudices towards ethnic minorities. All of these can contribute to the development of an underclass and to further distancing these groups from the mainstream, and consolidating gangs as communities on the fringe. However, others have actively promoted an explicit antisocial ideology in support of violent behaviour with the intent of shocking and rejecting a society that was perceived to have been ultimately responsible for the abuse and harm of young people in state care (Gerbes, personal communication, 2010). The ‘problem’ of gangs, then is framed as a community issue, rather than merely the problem of a select and marginalised group.

In short, compared to offenders without gang ties, gang membership can involve exposure to a range of factors that exert strong and complex impediments to an individual developing an offence-free lifestyle.

The role of the community

Although gang members have been known to present challenges for correctional and law enforcement agencies, they are, first and foremost, a community issue. US gang researcher George Knox asserted that “the last defence against gang crime is the community itself if we cannot rely on the family as an effective agency of socialisation” (2009, p. 385). Furthermore, long-term desistance is considered to be best achieved through strategies that promote and sustain the individual’s efforts to reintegrate into society as a law-abiding citizen (Thurber, 1998). In New Zealand, an offender’s pathway to desistance via the justice system involves a number of formal relationships that might include – but is not limited to – probation officers, psychologists, programme facilitators (e.g. Medium Intensity Rehabilitation Programme, Special Treatment Units) and therapists (e.g. substance abuse, sensitive claims), educators, instructors (e.g. offender employment), case managers, spiritual guides (e.g. chaplains) and indigenous providers (e.g. Mäori service providers). However, while the ultimate aim of these contacts is to enhance offence-free lifestyles in the community, these particular relationships occur – and usually terminate – within the context of an individual’s sentence. Hence, in the absence of effective community input, a prevention focus can become diffuse.

To take this further, Wilkinson (2005) argued that neither correctional services nor communities can afford to view re-entry as the sole responsibility of the other, and that it is crucial for correctional agencies to work with community organisations whose expertise involves employment readiness and knowledge of job opportunities, in an effort to prepare an individual for meaningful future endeavours.

Community responses to gangs: International

Gangs are a global phenomenon and are found in one form or another in both the developing world and Western societies. Gangs may be considered to be ‘open systems’ that require ongoing recruitment in order to ensure longevity as a collective entity. Members are typically drawn from the broader community where gangs are geographically located, and recruitment into these groups can have negative impacts on these communities, such as victimising non-members or incarceration, where individuals are removed from the community and their families. As such, communities have sought to defend themselves against the perceived and actual harms often attributed to gangs. According to Spergel and Curry (1995), typical strategies for responding to gangs have included:


These approaches typically use legal means and are primarily law enforcement-based interventions such as arrest, prosecution, imprisonment and surveillance (Kinnear, 2009). Such strategies rely on deterrence – both of which are considered poor mechanisms of constructive behavioural change in the absence of alternatives (Wong & Hare, 2005). Furthermore, Alexander (2008) warned that attributing broader social issues to ‘the gang problem’ and devising a range of interventions on this basis, is to be in danger of perpetuating the very circumstances we seek to challenge7.

Organisational change

These strategies seek to address fundamental causes of community problems, such as racism, unemployment, and lack of opportunity, rather than emphasise proximate causes of gang involvement (Gebo, Boyes-Watson & Pinto-Wilson, 2010). A primary challenge of these approaches is to define and address ‘the gang problem’ at a community level.

Social opportunities

These emphasise the provision of education, job training and workforce entry, but can be undermined by a reliance on limited resources (job availability), the individual’s motivation, and their receptiveness to being induced into work culture.

Community mobilisation

These are designed to create co-operation across agencies and better co-ordination of existing services. A number of well-established programmes, such as GREAT and the LA Plan have operated from this basis. Klein and Maxson (2006) discussed major challenges that can occur with larger scale and complex strategies: (1) divergent political and organisational interests, (2) establishing involvement from multiple agencies and co-ordination in the face of resistance and uncooperativeness, (3) divided opinion on involving former gang members, (4) non-gang workers who didn’t put time in on weekends/evenings (when former gang-members did) and/or who had little contact with gang members, all exacerbated by (5) lack of a clear model (e.g. lack of precise guidelines and goals creates challenges for evaluation).

Social intervention

These approaches typically emphasise crisis and/or youth intervention with juveniles and their families, and social service referrals (e.g. counselling). However, some ‘top down’ social intervention approaches can ignore the importance of local understandings of context and priorities, thus service delivery becoming clunky and impractical.

Community responses to gangs: New Zealand

Since the early 1970s, a number of reports and strategies were released in response to concerns that gangs were emerging as a significantly problematic social phenomenon in New Zealand. Notable historical efforts, such as the report of the Polynesian Youth Forum (1972), framed New Zealand gangs as a consequence of societal forces such as mass urbanisation of Polynesian peoples, economic disadvantage, low employment and poor education amongst Māori youth, resulting in further disadvantage and escalating levels of youth crime. Recommendations from this forum were consistent with an organisational change philosophy and focused on the education system, particularly in reference to the high proportion of Māori and Polynesian youth who were expelled, suspended, or dispensated from school. Suggested reforms included the introduction of courses on legal procedures and individual rights in secondary school education, removing the powers of expulsion from school principals, the implementation of alternative ‘second chance’ education facilities, and the widespread adoption of a culture-specific curriculum. While endorsing revisions of service provision to Māori and Pacific youth, this report also assumed a socioeconomic cause of gang formation and tended to downplay individual and proximal factors to gang-related offending.

The report from the Committee on Gangs (1981)8, whilst acknowledging increasing levels of serious violence amongst identified gang members, also noted that substantial sentences had little impact on these groups, and may well have facilitated gang recruitment processes within prisons. The Report of the Ministerial Committee of Inquiry into Violence (1987)9, commented that gangs were the “least of this country’s worries” (p. 88), and rejected suppression approaches, adding that a move to outlaw the formation of gangs would “increase rather than reduce the problem” (p. 91). Furthermore, despite the identified negative aspects of gang membership, the report suggested that status, companionship and shared identity fulfilled emotional needs and common interests that also had positive possibilities that would be better harnessed in a socially acceptable way rather than with abuse and rejection. The report recommend increased eligibility for men with criminal convictions to engage in military training schemes with the view that enlistment in the army would provide an attractive alternative to gang membership. This report offered a more ‘balanced’ appraisal of gangs, despite the extensive but pessimistic Police submission. It recognised that addressing gangs as a community concern would require long-term solutions that would be necessarily multi-faceted. The report assumed that if home and family conditions, education, employment and concerted community involvement by both Māori and Pakeha were achieved, that “gang membership will lose its appeal” (p. 93). It also proposed top-down solutions, such as army training that emphasised compliance rather than alliance.

More recently, the Wanganui ‘patch ban’ was introduced to reduce gang presence in that city by outlawing the display of gang apparel (i.e. ‘patches’) in the central business district. Following a challenge by the Hell’s Angels, the bylaw was ruled unlawful by the High Court on the grounds that it violated the Bill of Rights Act (i.e. freedom of expression) and covered too wide a geographical area10. Despite some early arrests11 and enthusiasm in other jurisdictions, such as Wairoa, Whakatane, and Whangarei, the bylaw was a clear suppression strategy that assumed behaviour change by virtue of targeting apparel and insignia, rather than directly addressing antisocial behaviour. It was argued that, although well-intentioned, the bylaw would also endanger Police who would be in the position of having to confiscate patches – an act that would not be complied with lightly12.

Knox (2009) observed that “no one has ever claimed to have ‘rehabilitated’ an organisation of offenders. At best, individuals have been ‘reformed’ or ‘rehabilitated’” (p. 597). Reviews of state-sponsored community gang interventions in the United States have revealed that opportunity provision and community mobilisation are the most effective at reducing gang involvement (and presumably offending) but have been the least employed measures. Conversely, suppression-based approaches were the most employed, yet least effective (Klein & Maxson, 2006; Spergel & Curry, 1990).


The relationship between gangs, gang membership, and crime are conceptually and socially challenging. For instance, oppositional behaviour that is reinforced and maintained by virtue of gang membership reflects constraints and pressures from a social system that involves multiple functional relationships – that is, gangs offer more than associations with like-minded others or criminal opportunities for members, but rather a network of support that also presents a counter-narrative to top-down notions of law and order. Traditional approaches to addressing the interface between gangs and antisocial behaviour have been problematic because of moral objections, narrow scope, resource constraints, or lack of involvement with the gang community in decision-making. Addressing crime is a matter for police, justice and correctional agencies. Addressing gangs, however, is likely to be a multi-level all-of-community issue. For members who are ambivalent or seeking a way out, the long-range challenge for rehabilitation and reintegration may be to effectively replace one system (gang) with another. However, an understanding of the drivers for individuals is an important step and yet to be better understood. In this regard, gang members may be better treated as a group with specific needs – informed by subcultural norms, values, and practices – rather than as simply a ‘higher risk’ group. Any behaviour change efforts with members of these groups would need to be ‘gang-informed’. In this regard, a workable theory of gangs would need to inform the function of gang-centred lifestyles for members (e.g. drivers for joining), processes of entry and exit, and post-gang-life issues. Such a theory has yet to be fully developed over and above general theories of crime and desistance.


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1 This research was made possible by a Department of Corrections research evaluation grant. The author would also like to acknowledge the support of community probation staff who, through their constructive resources and linkages, helped to create positive research relationships with community providers who informed this work.

2 Internationally considered to be the four most empirically well-supported risk factors for general offending, the so-called ‘big four’ comprises of (1) a history of crime; (2) an antisocial personality pattern (e.g., psychopathic traits); (3) antisocial associates; and, (4) attitudes and beliefs supportive of offending behaviour (for a fuller discussion of this research, see Andrews & Bonta, 2010).

3 For identified gang members, N=2,939 with RoC*RoI M=0.59; S.D.=0.19; whereas all offenders, N=41,474 with RoC*RoI
M=0.36; S.D.=0.24 (as at August 2011).

4 Two exceptions would be Dennehy and Newbold’s (2001) The girls in the gang, and Desmond’s (2010) Trust. Both are rare examples of New Zealand gang literature and examine the roles of women and gangs, as well as their pathways towards prosocial lifestyles. It is of interest that of the few published books dedicated to New Zealand gangs and gang life that the most thoroughly researched concerned women who were associates of gangs, suggesting perhaps that male members are less inclined to disclose their gang histories, are less accessible, or – arguably – more likely to observe and respect gang codes even after leaving.

5 Or, the ‘Good Lives’ model of desistance.

6 Of New Zealand’s long-standing gangs, Black Power commemorated 40 years in 2010 (O’Reilly, personal communication, 2010); the Mongrel Mob – whose origins are considered to have been founded in 1963 are approaching
half a century (Gerbes, personal communication, 2010) and the New Zealand chapter of the Hell’s Angels recently celebrated 50 years.

7 Gerbes’ (personal communication, 2011) firsthand accounts of the formation of the ‘Petone Rebels’ – and later, the Mongrel Mob – described the attitudes and behaviour of these early cliques as essentially reactionary to the State and driven by common experiences of abuse suffered amongst young people whilst in State care.

8 Chaired by Ken Comber (MP), this document became known as the ‘Comber report’.

9 Chaired by Justice Sir Clinton Roper, this document became known as the ‘Roper report’.

10 Hell’s Angels challenge topples gang patch bylaw. (2011, March 4). New Zealand Herald. Retrieved from

11 First arrest for wearing gang patches made in Wanganui. (2009, September 1). New Zealand Herald. Retrieved from objected=10594514.

12 Gower, P. (2008, July 31). Patch ban a danger to Police, says gang expert. New Zealand Herald. Retrieved from 10524476.