Changing the Lens

There are a variety of gangs in New Zealand, with indigenous ethnic gangs making up the majority in terms of membership. While there has been a growth in the number and visibility of ‘youth gangs’ over the past decade, these groups are generally part of a wider landscape of families and communities with intergenerational gang membership and high levels of poverty, unemployment, poor educational engagement and poorly resourced neighbourhoods.

International researchers note little reliable empirical data about ‘gangs’, who belongs to them, and what they do, and New Zealand is no exception. The lack of quantifiable information arises from the well-recognized problem with defining a ‘gang’, the rapid change in levels of membership and activity particularly in youth gangs, and the lack of engagement with government agencies by families and communities associated with gangs – hence, limited administrative data.

New Zealand Experience

Research suggests that, while gangs are more likely to form during periods of economic growth, gang membership is likely to rise during periods of low economic growth and high unemployment. A number of societal and structural drivers influence gang formation and gang membership. These include:

  • Structural inequalities: poverty, unemployment, absence of meaningful jobs and social disorganisation;
  • Barriers to resources (education, health, social services, employment etc); and
  • Processes of colonialism.

Gangs have existed in New Zealand since the colonial period. However, many of today’s more established gangs evolved during the early 1950s through to the 1970s, a period of economic growth. The periods of highest gang membership growth in New Zealand were the late 1970s to the early 1980s, and the late 1980s and early 1990s, periods of economic recession. Income inequality rose in New Zealand from the late 1980s so that New Zealand now has one of the highest levels of inequality in the OECD.

Gang membership is also influenced by a number of ‘individual’ risk factors, including:

  • Gender: gang members are typically male, although research shows significant increases in female gang membership and gang formation;
  • Geographical placement: more likely to live in urban contexts;
  • Ethnicity and class: likely to be member of a racial or ethnic minority or, more generally, from an ‘underclass’ population; and
  • Educational attainment: restricted access to quality education, low education attainment.

Gang membership in New Zealand generally reflects these patterns, with the exception that gangs are less of a distinctly urban phenomenon. Provincial areas have some of the highest proportion of gang membership, reflecting a drift back from cities to ancestral lands and areas with a lower cost of living during times of high unemployment.

Intervening to reduce the growth of gangs and gang-related crime

To date, the principal strategy employed by New Zealand Police and, arguably, a number of government agencies, has been ‘zero tolerance’ and suppression, reinforced by additional police powers to monitor, arrest and separate gang members and higher tariffs in sentencing.

However, there is a significant body of research to suggest that suppression tactics do not reduce gang offending, and there is little evidence of effectiveness in New Zealand.

The research also demonstrates that the imprisonment of gang members enables gangs to recruit within prisons, dominate prison culture, dominate the contraband trade within prisons and run criminal activities within the community from prison. There is evidence that this happened in New Zealand prisons during the 1980s when the traditional prison culture became dominated by gang prison culture. In summary, much of the current literature has concluded that traditional law enforcement strategies alone will have little effect on reducing, managing, or suppressing gangs.

To curb the growth of gangs and reduce associated criminal activity, research supports a multi-modal approach with a strong emphasis on socio-economic drivers, social inclusion and community development in relevant communities, including efforts to reduce the barriers to alternative, pro-social options.

Working with indigenous ethnic gangs – principles

The approach that has shown promising results in New Zealand is underpinned by the following principles:

  • A focus on the behaviours of individuals/whānau rather than on appearance or affiliation – the delivery of interventions and social services should be focused on changing behaviours rather than focussed on what the recipient(s) looks like or who they are affiliated to;
  • Building on the strengths of youth, their whānau and communities to address negative behaviours and promote positive behaviours;
  • Removing the labels – there is a propensity to label youth groups as youth gangs without recognising that young people need their peer support as part of a natural youth development process. Labelling theorists argue that labelling can create a self-fulfilling prophecy situation where the young people’s behaviours will be influenced by the label;
  • Recognising that there are opportunities for positive change in all youth, whānau and communities, regardless of how alienated or dysfunctional a young person, whānau or community may be;
  • Recognition of the diversity of leadership in communities;
  • Engaging whānau and community – recognition that young people are all part of whānau, and that whānau and community are not passive recipients, but are aspirational. They are capable of designing, developing and delivering their own interventions and services that will factor in their realities;
  • People who have common experiences with hard to reach populations are the most appropriate people to design and deliver intervention projects because they can share their experiences of what has led them to make positive life choices;
  • Building capability and capacity – recognising youth, whānau and community leaders are often people with instinctive leadership qualities and may need support to develop their formal leadership acumen;
  • Mobilising whānau and community – changing criminal behaviours effectively requires the young people, whānau and community to accept the need to change; and
  • Supporting and resourcing youth, whānau and community initiatives, particularly Māori designed, developed and delivered ‘bottomup’ initiatives to the stage that they can be robustly evaluated.

The challenge is to tap into that positive potential. To do this, penetration and engagement is critical and pro-social individuals from hard to reach communities are more likely to be successful because they have particular expertise, experience and credibility.

…It is our contention that hard to reach groups can be engaged and mobilised to change, and that this is good use of resources. By mobilising whole communities of hard to reach youth and their families, longer term, intergenerational change is possible. This creates an environment where youth can begin to feel a healthy sense of industry and competency, connectedness, a sense of control over their lives and a strong pro-social identity.

These excerpts are taken from Julia Carr and Harry Tam’s 2013 article in the Chronicle for the ‘International Association of Youth and Family Judges and Magistrates’. You can read the full piece, alongside other articles on gangs, here.

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