Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Criminology and Criminal Justice. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 30 September 2022

Gang Desistancefree

Gang Desistancefree

  • Christian L. BoldenChristian L. BoldenDepartment of Criminology and Justice, Loyola University New Orleans
  •  and Anna Q. IliffAnna Q. IliffDepartment of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Merrimack College

Summary

Gang desistance refers to the cessation of gang activities and disentanglement from gang identity. Despite the widespread myths concerning an inability to leave a gang without severe consequences, most individuals will desist from gang activities in a passive manner. Although passive exits may be common, gang desistance is both a social and a psychological phenomenon that defies an oversimplified event of sudden cessation. Studies have revealed theoretical patterns and processes that involve a wide variety of motivations and exit strategies that are not mutually exclusive from each other. Although the majority of gang-involved individuals will eventually leave the gang, the paths toward desistance are not always straightforward, sometimes resulting in ambivalent and ambiguous behaviors, such as regression back to gang involvement, and residual attributes of street lifestyles rather than abrupt cessation of gang affiliation.

For concerns of outside observers, the nebulous boundaries of gangs further complicate understanding of gang exit. Motivators of desistance include push factors such as personal and vicarious experiences of violence and victimization, disillusionment with gang life, dissolution of gangs and membership attrition, and incarceration. Pull factors that motivate gang desistance are maturing or aging out, parenthood, family and prosocial support, and religion. Despite the rhetoric surrounding a violent requirement for gang exit, it is more common for an individual to cease gang activity without a violent incident. Nonviolent exits are accomplished through walking away, fading out of the gang scene, and geographic relocation. Despite the varied regional contexts, studies on gang desistance have resulted in similar findings.

Subjects

  • Juvenile Justice
  • Prevention/Public Policy

Introduction

Post-millennium, desistance has come to the forefront of gang research. Studies have both revealed the popularity of false myths that emphasize an inability to leave a gang and illuminated the intricate complexities of de-embeddedness and desistance. Cumulative scholarly knowledge indicates that gang tenure tends to be short term and has identified general patterns concerning the motivations for leaving. However, the particular drivers of gang desistance and methods of exit have wide individual variation, leading to multilayered, nonlinear pathways toward cessation of gang activity.

Rhetoric and Reality About Leaving the Gang

Gang desistance is a process that has been shrouded in myth and rumor. The colloquial belief is that leaving gangs is not possible. In common vernacular, this is referred to as “blood in, blood out,” meaning a person must shed blood or have their own blood spilt to become a part of a gang, and they must be killed or have their blood shed again to leave the gang. In some instances, the myth included harm to the family of the individual wanting to leave the gang (Decker & Van Winkle, 1996) or a requirement that the desisting member kill someone in their own family to get out of the gang (Curry & Decker, 2003). Although this rhetoric is common in the media and even among gang members, the reality is that the majority of people involved with gangs will leave those gangs without violent repercussions and go on to live conventional lives. The knowledge that people could leave gangs was found in research as early as Thrasher’s (1927) seminal study The Gang. However, the concept of gang desistance did not receive much attention afterwards until longitudinal studies such as those conducted in Denver, Colorado, Seattle, Washington, and Rochester, New York (Thornberry, 1998) demonstrated that most gang membership was temporary. Despite the commonality of short-term involvement, it would not be the case for all gang members, as some trajectories result in death or lengthy incarceration rather than gang desistance (Sánchez-Jankowski, 1991).

Matza (1990) argued that attrition is a primary adversary of gangs because members will eventually mature and shift toward legitimate behavior. Thus, it is in the best interest of gangs to keep up the façade that gang membership is for life to mitigate rapid attrition. Although rhetoric about being unable to leave gangs seems to be common, the reality of actually leaving has also been recognized by gangs. For example, the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation had a specific document called the “Golden Gate” that outlined the process of a person leaving the gang (Brotherton & Barrios, 2004), and MS-13 recognized the transition into gang retirement, referring to the process as “becoming calmado” (Ward, 2012). In many cases, gang members understand the reasons why others want to leave and do not hold that against them (Decker & Lauritsen, 2002).

Theoretical Viewpoints

As a theoretical concept, gang desistance was rarely discussed prior to the millennium. Since that time, desistance has come into significant focus, with most theoretical applications centered on the process of exiting a gang. One approach has been to use role exit theory (Decker et al., 2014; Dziewanski, 2020; Ebaugh, 1988), which begins with “first doubts,” or questioning one’s lifestyle, due to the threat of violence, as well as inconsistencies and contradictions in gang ideologies. “Alternative socializations,” such as legitimate economic opportunity, spirituality, romantic relationships, and family, are then explored as a way to supplant social support. This is a difficult stage because by its nature, gang embeddedness cuts off opportunities for prosocial alternatives (Pyrooz et al., 2013). This stage is followed by a “turning point” event that focuses awareness of dissatisfaction and alters a course. Finally, a person enters the “ex-role” in which the values, behaviors, and norms of the previous role are supplanted by prosocial sources of socialization. Berger et al. (2017) discussed a pattern of disengagement in which former members describe the process starting with a triggering event, then contemplation, followed by hypothetical and/or practical exploration of other lifestyles, sharing the desire to desist with those close to them, gaining employment, going back to school, associating with prosocial groups, exiting the gang, and, finally, maintenance of the exit.

Research on crime desistance has been connected to cognitive transformations that occur within the person who is either considering or working toward cessation (Giordano et al., 2002). The model of cognitive transformations, as identified in the desistance of Aboriginal gang members in Canada, started with being open to change. Members then took hold of opportunities that helped them move away from criminal involvement, recognizing that who they are is different from who they were. Finally, they no longer viewed past criminal activity as positive (Deane et al., 2007; Giordano et al., 2002). An alternate perspective uses McNeil’s (2014) three levels of desistance. Primary desistance occurs when a youth stops engaging in gang activities such as fighting, followed by secondary desistance, in which a youth no longer self-identifies as a gang member, and then tertiary desistance occurs when the community no longer identifies the youth as a gang member (Gormally, 2015). Gang desistance has also been studied through the lens of the signaling theory, which suggests that there are certain “signals” a person can use to create an image of themself that is believable to the “receiver” (Gambetta, 2009). Densley and Pyrooz (2019) identified some of the signals desisting members use, such as showing remorse, displaying healed wounds from older fights (indicating their gang activity was long past), joining recovery programs, renouncing membership, receiving an education and job training, showing commitment to disengagement through burning bridges with other gang members, and building bridges with the community.

Process of Gang Desistance

The previously discussed theoretical explanations underscore the complexity that gang desistance may not be a singular event but, rather, a process of disentangling or disconnecting from a gang. This process can be lengthy, unpredictable, nonlinear, and subject to contextual challenges (Dziewanski, 2020). The complexity of gang desistance includes both transitions of personal identity and transitions of community perceptions. The process of an individual no longer identifying as a gang member is further compounded by whether or not the community recognizes the desistance or continues to view the individual as a gang member (Gormally, 2015). Discussions of the desistance process may be focused on various aspects of the phenomenon. De-identification is a specified declaration or event that demarcates a disconnection from the gang. De-embeddedness, on the other hand, is a lengthier process in which there is an incremental decrease in gang activity and network entanglement with other gang members (Sweeten et al., 2013).

Gang Membership Complexities

Gang membership is categorized by differing levels of involvement, which can influence as well as complicate paths and processes of desistance. Differing roles within the gang, as well as levels of membership intensity, can create varying levels of ambivalence surrounding desistance.

Temporary Affiliation and Intensity of Membership

One complexity of gang desistance concerns the varying levels of involvement with gangs. Some people operate on the fringes of gangs, thereby making desistance much simpler (Horowitz, 1983). Others are deeply embedded into gangs, entrenched in gang friendship networks, and involved in intense gang activity. Intense gang embeddedness makes gang desistance significantly more difficult to achieve (Pyrooz et al., 2013). Gangs can also be nebulous. The composition and purpose of gangs constantly shift, so membership and desistance of members are not straightforward (Panfil, 2020). Explaining gang desistance is further complicated by whether or not affiliates or temporary members are actually considered a part of the gang. The line between associates of gangs and gang members is often thin and confusing. Gang associates can still commit crimes in conjunction with gang members. Outside groups, such as enemy gangs or law enforcement, may not differentiate between gang association and gang affiliation (Bolden, 2012). Despite any controversy, all forms of desistance from gangs and gang interaction are important to study.

Percentage of People Leaving Gangs

Most gang membership is short term (Bjerregaard, 2010). Of gang members studied in Seattle, Denver, and Rochester, most remained involved for less than 1 year (Thornberry, 1998). This equated to half of the gang-involved boys and two-thirds of gang-involved girls in those areas. Only approximately one-fifth of the boys and 5% of the girls at those sites remained in gangs for 3 or more years (Thornberry, 1998). Similar proportions were found in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with slightly less than half of boys leaving their gangs within 1 year and only one-fourth of the boys studied maintaining membership for 2 years (Gordon et al., 2004). Another study in Seattle found that slightly less than one-third of boys remained with a gang for more than 1 year and only 1% stayed in a gang for more than 5 years (Hill et al., 2001). Of those studied in Denver, two-thirds remained with a gang for less than 1 year and only 3% maintained membership for 4 years. Gang membership was also found by Weerman et al. (2015) to be short-lived, with the majority of the youths in their sample transitioning out after 1 year and a smaller portion of the sample transitioning out after 3 years. It appears that age decreases the likelihood of remaining with a gang. In their study of gang desistance in El Salvador, Rosen and Cruz (2019) found that the percentage of those who were considering leaving increased with age. Slightly more than 50% of gang members younger than age 17 years considered leaving, whereas 66% of those aged 25 years or older considered doing so. Decker and Lauritsen (2002) found that two-thirds of gang members end up leaving the gang.

Ambivalence in Gang Membership

An understudied issue is the inability to successfully leave a gang even when the desire to do so is present. Bolden (2013) found that some participants wanted to leave a gang but were faced with obstacles to legitimate transitions, such as criminal records that prevented successful attempts at employment. As a result, they vacillated in and out of the gang, wanting to leave but relying on gang activities to survive in the interim (see also Hagedorn, 1994). Lack of prosocial empowerment, such as legitimate economic opportunity, can result in disengagement failure, as it pushes people back into the gang (Dziewanski, 2020). Another consideration is the stereotype that all gangs are antisocial. The family-like support system and prosocial goals of gay gangs worked against the concept of needing to leave the gang to work toward positive aims (Panfil, 2020). The Ogijitta Pimatiswin Kinamatwin (OPK) program, in its unique approach to curbing gang involvement, recognized the difficulties surrounding gang desistance. The OPK program did not require participants to disconnect from their gang but only that they no longer take part in gang-related criminal activities (Deane et al., 2007). It was understood that many gang members had joined due to the social isolation surrounding being Aboriginal in Manitoba, Canada, and the program did not seek to sever that tie members had with each other.

There are also individuals who believe the rhetoric about never being able to leave a gang, although they have ceased their participation in gang activities or consider themselves retired (Bolden, 2013). Their perception of their own relationship with the gang may also differ from what other people perceive. Indeed, some indicated that although they still belonged to a gang, they defined it as a large group of friends instead of a group with ties to criminal activity (Deane et al., 2007). Continuous socializing and maintenance of friendship networks with gang members negate the outside appearance that a person has desisted from gang activity (Pyrooz et al., 2014). Law enforcement, school authorities, and other gang members may still view them as a part of a gang, and individuals who remained tied to their former gang in such ways were twice as likely to be violently victimized or arrested for serious offenses (Pyrooz & Decker, 2011). Gormally (2015) highlighted this complication of gang identity by illustrating that even though youth may view themselves as no longer gang members, if this is not recognized by society, they will remain tagged as gang members. Related to ambivalence is Ebaugh’s (1988) discussion of “role residual,” which refers to elements of a past role and personal experiences that linger even after one has left the role. For example, some individuals continued to wear their former gang’s clothes, colors, and symbols because these were still a part of their “blood” and they still had power within those symbolic aspects. Others kept the demeanor of a gang member and constantly demanded respect or continued following the gang’s worldview, including living by the code and never telling on anyone, despite no longer being a part of the gang (Bubolz & Lee, 2021). The ambivalence of gang desistance was also illustrated by those in the Danish boxing program New Start. Despite interviewees having joined the program due to a desire for a new life, factors such as social isolation, stigmatization, perceived “traditional” masculinity, and connections to members of their gang made desistance an ongoing process (Deuchar et al., 2016).

The disentanglement of “gang identity” includes a precarious saddling of boundaries that is not easily unraveled. For example, an interviewee in Decker et al.’s (2014) study stated that even though he was sidelined, he still identified himself as a member, as he would get involved if “something were to go down.” Another described his membership as “teeter-tottering,” never fully embedded in gang activity but still not completely unengaged (Decker et al., 2014, p. 274). Similarly, 2 out of the 15 former gang members in a study conducted in Scotland stated that their membership to their gang was purely circumstantial, in that they were not always involved in the gang’s activities but would engage occasionally, especially when it came to fighting (Gormally, 2015). Respondents in Bolden’s (2013) study referred to fellow gang members in a family-like manner, and they recognized that if the other members were hurt or in trouble, it could potentially draw them back into gang activity.

Retirement from gang activities also falls into the category of ambivalence because it allows for desistance without full separation from the gang. In El Salvador, members were able to desist from gang activity in a method referred to as “calming down.” Due to gang membership being understood as a lifelong commitment, “calming down” or “becoming calmado” does not require a member to depart from their group but allows them to no longer actively participate in gang activities (Rosen & Cruz, 2019; Ward, 2012). One’s own gang may not completely accept the decision to leave and may still insist on maintaining a relationship with a member who considers themself desisted. In El Salvador, approximately 63% of members who participated in a survey indicated that their gang or clique had a supervision process, in which members who left were still kept under watch by the gang (Cruz & Rosen, 2020). In addition, as long as a member remained in the gang’s territory and continued to associate with active members, they were never seen as out of the gang. Inactive members could be called upon at any time to take active roles in gang activities (Del Carmen et al., 2009).

Causes or Motivators of Gang Desistance

In research, several factors have been identified as primary causes or motivations for gang desistance. These motivators include push factors, such as violence and victimization, disillusionment, dissolution and attrition, and incarceration, and pull factors, such as maturing or aging out, parenthood, family and prosocial support, and religious conversion.

Violence and Victimization

One of the primary reasons for leaving gangs was experiencing the violent victimization or death of a family member or close friend (Decker & Lauritsen, 2002; Decker & Pyrooz, 2011; Dziewanski, 2020). Victimization, threats of violence, and being repulsed by violence were key in the desistance of gay gang members (Panfil, 2020). In Bolden’s (2013) study of San Antonio, Texas, and Orlando, Florida, violent death of a close friend or family member was one of the primary catalysts for gang desistance. Moving on from gang life and association was precipitated by no longer wanting to live in fear of rival gang retribution, as even a mere association with a gang could result in being the victim of gang violence (Kolind et al., 2017). Weariness of violence and discontent with the gang can also lead to a rapid cessation (Decker et al., 2014; Roks, 2017). Violence was found to trigger an abrupt exit from gang membership in what is referred to as “knifing off,” as it is a sudden, immediate action of individuals ending their involvement and identity as a gang member (Decker et al., 2014). Incarcerated former gang members in Alberta, Canada, also identified violence as a reason they chose to desist (Chalas & Grekul, 2017). Consistent with that pattern, former core gang members in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area indicated that it was their own victimizations or the threat or actual victimization of those close to them that ended their gang involvement (Berger et al., 2017). Cruz and Rosen (2020) demonstrated this type of desistance driven by family victimization through an interviewee describing a shoot-out at his house in which his family was harmed. Family and intimate relationships were found to be a major factor associated with desistance in Tonks and Stephenson’s (2019) meta-analysis. For some gang-involved individuals, it was the realization that their own victimization was a secondary victimization for their families that pushed them toward leaving.

Disillusionment

In addition to victimization or threat of victimization, Tonks and Stephenson (2019) found that disillusionment played a significant role in members choosing to leave. In five of the seven studies analyzed, members who felt unsupported or abandoned by their gangs started to contemplate who was actually loyal and supportive of them, causing them to consider leaving. Disillusionment was also found by Carson et al. (2017) as a major reason for male and female youth deciding to leave their gangs. Approximately one-third of the former core members interviewed by Berger et al. (2017) stated that disillusionment and overall burnout due to the high-risk lifestyle of being in a gang led to their desistance. Substance abuse was cited by some former core members as being the reason that they chose to desist (Berger et al., 2017). Bubolz and Simi (2015) argued that disillusionment stems from members entering gangs anticipating that they will be protected, will be part of a family, and will do well economically but discovering that their expectations are not reality. This failure of expectation fulfillment causes disillusionment and then desistance. Former Aboriginal gang members illustrated a unique type of disillusionment in the form of a cognitive transformation, resulting in seeing oneself as different from one’s past criminal forms (Deane et al., 2007; Gordino et al., 2002). An example of this manifestation was viewing jobs and payment as an accomplishment for time and effort put into the task, thus aiding in cognitive desistance (Deane et al., 2007).

Former members who became incarcerated experienced disillusionment because once they were in prison, they were no longer supported by their gang emotionally, socially, or financially, which brought up feelings of abandonment and questions surrounding their own loyalty to their gang (McLean et al., 2017). Bubolz and Lee (2021) also found desistance motivators related to disillusionment, with one member in their study stating that while he was in the hospital due to a gang-related injury, members of his gang stole possessions from his house, and another stating that he was abandoned by his gang once he was incarcerated. Incarcerated former gang members in Alberta also stated that disillusionment was the reason they chose to cease gang activity (Chalas & Grekul, 2017).

Dissolution and Attrition

Former gang members in San Antonio and Orlando identified gang dissolution, attrition, and groups falling apart as primary motivators for desistance (Bolden, 2013). Similarly, gang dissolution was identified by gay gang members in Columbus, Ohio, as a reason for disengagement (Panfil, 2020). In Bolden’s (2020) autoethnography of experience in gang life, he described the dissolution and attrition of his gang through incarceration, maturing out, joining the military, and parenthood. Knowing another member who had left can also play a role in choosing to leave (Bolden, 2013). Receiving advice from former and current members about doing more with their life caused people to reconsider their current life as a gang member (Tonks & Stephenson, 2019). In El Salvador, Cruz and Rosen (2020) found that those who knew someone who successfully desisted had significantly increased intentions of desisting themselves.

Incarceration

Incarceration can also play a key role in gang desistance. In some cases, going to prison or jail or fearing arrest or incarceration may be the impetus for leaving a street gang (Berger et al., 2017; Bolden, 2013; Decker et al., 2014; Panfil, 2020). Constant police harassment also leads some to get tired of the gang life (Berger et al., 2017). Deane et al. (2007) found that incarceration, especially when combined with another turning-point life event such as the death of a family member, provided reason for the desistance of Aboriginal gang members in Canada. Youth indicated the motivation toward disengagement was driven by fear of the consequences of further arrests and the impact these would have on their mothers, as well as a desire to keep their reputation of being “good” untarnished (Gormally, 2015). In English and Scottish prisons, desistance occurred because gangs could not operate as freely as they could outside of prison. The threat of being observed by guards resulted in a decrease of gang-related fighting, a lack of respect for gang members, increased isolation from other gang members, and subsequent dissipation of prison gangs (McLean et al., 2017, p. 6). Gang members who served long sentences had the most successful rates of desistance because they had more time to reflect on their lives and what they wanted their futures to look like (McLean et al., 2017). Despite issues such as overcrowding and limitations to services, incarcerated gang members in South Africa were still able to successfully disengage from their gangs, indicating that rehabilitation programs had a positive impact on them (Kelly & Ward, 2020).

Earlier academic thought on prison gangs purported the idea that leaving gangs in prison was rare because those groups adhered to “blood in, blood out” policies (Fleisher, 2006). More recent, in-depth analyses on prison gangs have found something altogether different. Desistance from gangs is comparatively more common while incarcerated than it is on the streets. Furthermore, with few exceptions, most prison gangs make allowance for nonviolent exit from the groups (Pyrooz & Decker, 2019). This process usually requires a formal declaration of the intent to leave and the reason for disengagement. Prison can also serve as a place to get access to programs dealing with stress reduction, healing from trauma, and emotion management, such as Prison Smart and Breathe Smart, which help individuals engage more with spiritual practices and redefine their own views of masculinity (Deuchar, 2020).

Maturation/Aging Out

Maturation has been illustrated as a major contributing factor in gang desistance (Bolden, 2013). Members who joined when they were young were aided in moving away from gang involvement through aspects of maturing, such as gaining new job opportunities and social roles (Tonks & Stephenson, 2019). Incarcerated gang members indicated that aging, familial factors, and a desire for a different life caused them to want to leave (Chalas & Grekul, 2017). Maturation plays a part in the “first doubts” stage of gang desistance. Former gang members described their first thoughts of desistance with elements related to the desire to move on from gang life and viewing their gang involvement as a characteristic of their adolescence or “young life” (Decker et al., 2014). In describing their former gang life, ex members of Aboriginal gangs stated that it was considered cool to be labeled as a gang member when they were younger, but as an adult, they did not see it that way (Deane et al., 2007). Demonstrating maturity, early gang desisters were more temperate, considerate of others, and more likely to be employed (Sweeten et al., 2013). Aging provides a change in perception, allowing desistance of older members, because gang involvement is characteristically believed to be related to youth. With maturation comes more access to public spaces, such as pubs and different groups of people. Expanded spaces allow for alternate venues of respect and responsibility, reducing the perceived necessity of constantly illustrating individual or group identity through gang-related behavior, such as street fighting (Gormally, 2015). Maturation was also a factor present in those desisting from gangs in prison, with individuals expressing desires of wanting to have their time over and done with and feeling as if they no longer belonged to the gang subculture (McLean et al., 2017).

Life events related to maturity have often been cited as reasons for gang desistance (Hagedorn, 1994; Thrasher, 1927; Vigil, 1988). Major life transitions, such as getting married, could also be instrumental in leaving a gang (Berger et al., 2017; Decker & Lauritsen, 2002). Prosocial pull factors, such as having children (Moloney et al., 2009, 2011) or gaining legitimate employment, are primary reasons for gang desistance (Berger et al., 2017; Decker & Pyrooz, 2011; Fleisher & Krienert, 2004; Grant & Feimer, 2007; Moloney et al., 2009). In leaving gay gangs, Panfil (2020) found that normative markers of masculine or mainstream gay success in employment, relationships, family, education, and public respect were critical for constructing a new life. Other studies have found that life events associated with maturation, such as aging, maintaining employment, and having children, were the most common reasons members desisted (Del Carmen et al., 2009). For many of those interviewed by McLean et al. (2017), it was the realization that fatherhood and gang life were not compatible. One individual stated that it was the sentencing judge telling him that he could no longer see his kids that made him leave the gang life behind.

Self-responsibility was an impactful factor in the desistance process. Interviewees stated that life events, such as getting a job and actively participating in the labor market, were all built from individual motivators, such as determination and willpower, illustrating a new perspective on personal responsibility and maturity (Kolind et al., 2017). In addition, former members who were incarcerated stated that after serving long prison sentences, the only thing they wanted was a changed lifestyle on the outside. Upon release, they found jobs and lived a more conventional lifestyle away from gang involvement (McLean et al., 2017). Along with self-responsibility, those who disengaged from gangs in South Africa did so through “agency,” in which members constructed a purposeful intention to alter their life course and take personal responsibility for their actions. This personal accountability manifested through mental reflections of feeling that “enough is enough,” fighting to not get sucked back into gang life, and becoming tired of blaming other people for their own involvement (Kelly & Ward, 2020).

Redefining masculinity as well as acceptance of behaviors that were traditionally viewed as more feminine were instrumental for those working to desist from their gangs. Toughness was a major element associated with masculinity, which was provided by gang membership; however, members were able to translate their desire to be perceived as tough into boxing. In addition, they were able to adapt to things previously believed to be feminine, such as therapy and being more open to expressing emotion (Deuchar et al., 2016). The redefining of gang membership as a whole was thought possible by one member, who stated that gangs could be beneficial to the community, if redirected. The core beliefs of his gang were “love, life, loyalty, knowledge, wisdom, and understanding,” all of which, as he stated, are not bad. Instead of removing the gang as a whole, he believed the gang just needed to be redirected from the violent and criminal aspects (Bubolz & Lee, 2021, p. 857.

Parenthood

O’Neal et al. (2016) found that one of the primary reasons for both male and female gang exit was starting a family or having a family to support them when they left. Studies on the impact of parenthood on gang membership revealed gendered differences as to how the presence of children altered activity (Pyrooz et al., 2017; Sutton, 2017). Men reported that fear of incarceration, victimizations, and disillusionment played the major role in their desistance, whereas women reported that pregnancy and family responsibilities, as well as marriage or committed relationships, were major factors in their decision to desist (Berger et al., 2017). Female gang members were more likely than males to desist after the birth of their first child. However, fathers who were living with the child and mother were more likely to desist than those not living with the mother and child, suggesting that cohabitation plays a major role in male gang members desisting upon the birth of their first child (Pyrooz et al., 2017). In five of the seven studies in the meta-analysis of Tonks and Stephenson (2019), becoming a parent played a significant role in gang desistance. Parenthood allowed them to see a better life, and it gave them a new identity to build a life around. Several other studies also confirmed that having children was a turning point toward desistance of gang activity (Bolden, 2013; Chalas & Grekul, 2017; Decker et al., 2014). Fatherhood, and specifically having someone to provide for, pushed individuals to disengage from gang life (Kelly & Ward, 2020). According to interviewees, fatherhood did not just “change” their lives but “saved them,” because without it they were facing potential incarceration and/or death. Instead, fatherhood was a way to portray their masculinity in a prosocial manner, rather than through violence and domination (Moloney et al., 2009, p. 312).

For ex-Aboriginal gang members, it was not only the desire to be involved in the raising of their children but also the approaching birth of their child that facilitated their choice to desist (Deane et al., 2007). Motherhood presents a unique conflict of identity for female gang members because they have to reconfigure their gang identity and involvement so that they can also hold the identity of a “good mother.” This involves a transition from the street to the home, where female gang members can keep their identity in a gang yet be disengaged from gang-related behavior (Moloney et al., 2011).

Family and Prosocial Support

Family support has been identified as a significant factor in motivating gang desistance. This support was particularly instrumental for disengagement coming from mothers, grandmothers, and significant others (Decker et al., 2014). In the majority of studies in a gang desistance meta-analysis, former gang members reported that having someone outside their family who was invested in helping them made them feel important and valued. Outside support was especially significant when disclosure of gang involvement was received without judgment, aiding them in exiting the gang (Tonks & Stephenson, 2019). Inclusion of family in the desistance process has also been highly recommended by former youth gang members. Being made aware of the hurt they were causing their families by being in a gang, having the family take classes on gangs, being involved in family therapy, keeping track of one another, providing unconditional love and support, and severing their own family ties to gang involvement were all recommendations made by former youth gang members to help facilitate desistance (Sharkey et al., 2015). Community support was also reported by former youth gang members as a factor in aiding desistance. Providing space for emotional release, such as sports or extracurricular activities, helping youth get jobs, providing counseling and substance abuse programs, and providing funds for material goods and food were the top recommendations for community support of desistance (Sharkey et al., 2015). For those involved in the program New Start, the boxing gym provided a supportive environment but also an escape from social exclusion and stigmatization that they were facing from the community (Deuchar et al., 2016). There was some worry among those who were gang-involved that parents would not be willing to allow their daughters to marry those involved in criminal activity, so the prospect of marriage served as a reason for some to distance themselves from the lifestyle (Kolind et al., 2017). Prosocial support that was meaningful, emotional, or practical served many former members in disengaging from their gangs. This support was particularly helpful in prison, encouraging individual involvement with rehabilitation programs (Kelly & Ward, 2020).

Religion

Spirituality and the aid of religious leaders were key factors in three of the studies analyzed by Tonks and Stephenson (2019). Religious leaders aided and supported gang members in finding religion. The spiritual advisors would encourage gang members to think through the harm of their current lifestyle, the trauma surrounding gang membership, and, ultimately, about leaving the gang (Tonks & Stephenson, 2019). Cruz and Rosen (2020) found that religion played a role in gang desistance in El Salvador, with individuals who converted to Evangelical Christianity making up a large percentage of those who desisted. In addition, because the church was held in high regard in El Salvador, religious conversion provided a safe and respected method of desistance (Rosen & Cruz, 2019). Reimmersion into religion and religious values, as well as the reconnecting to cultural roots, are major factors in decisions to desist (Berger et al., 2017). For Aboriginal gang members involved in the OPK program, a key aspect of their decision to desist was the reintegration to their own culture and its related spirituality. Members involved in the program were able to participate in Aboriginal traditions and ceremonies, which served to help them understand their roots and feel connected to who they are instead of feeling angry about their social isolation (Deane et al., 2007). A few former gang members in Orlando also cited religious conversion as their primary path to gang desistance (Bolden, 2013).

The Prison Smart and Breathe Easy programs reviewed by Deuchar (2020) found that spirituality practices could help gang members redefine how they viewed themselves. Those involved in the programs stated that they felt more connected to their own religions, were able to redefine their own image of masculinity, and felt more drawn to roles of parenthood.

Religion, specifically Islam, was an important factor for those involved in the New Start program (Kolind et al., 2017). Participants of the program illustrated that once on the path to redefine their life away from the gang, Islam became more apparent in their lives. Many believed that repentance and owning up to their past mistakes would add a much-needed restructuring of their own morality and help support their desistance process (Kolind et al., 2017). In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, prison gangs allowed members to desist if they were leaving for religious reasons. However, if members were found to be “hiding behind the Bible” and not being true to religion, there would be severe consequences (Johnson & Densley, 2018, p. 253). Therefore, those desisting would signal their religious affiliation through public initiation, taking part in religious rituals, wearing the Pentecostal symbol on their shirts, abstaining from sin, sharing with other cellmates, and accepting prisoners who were socially outcast in prison society (Johnson & Densley, 2018). An example of desistance through spirituality in a prison setting is provided by McLean et al. (2017, p. 11), with a former member describing reading the Bible and receiving guidance from a prison chaplain to search his “innate being,” ultimately resulting in him joining “God’s Gang.”

Programs such as Homeboy Industries, a Jesuit-founded gang rehabilitation organization, and Victory Outreach have provided support to Los Angeles gang members, particularly those who are part of Latino immigrant communities. Such faith-based programs aided members in desisting by helping them redefine “barrio masculinity” and reinvent themselves as active members of their community and families (Flores, 2014). The efforts of Homeboy Industries go beyond faith-based programming for desistance and include counseling, employment assistance, and education referrals. These programs also encourage participants to move away from the “soft embodiment” of gang life, which entails changing elements of their appearance, growing out their hair, wearing tighter fitting khaki pants, and removing gang-associated tattoos (Flores, 2014). In South Africa, faith-based institutions aided members’ disengagement as they opened up avenues to resources, simultaneously providing emotional and financial support. Former members stated that finding religion gave their lives meaning (Kelly & Ward, 2020).

Methods of Gang Desistance

Although there is a common rhetoric about violence being required to exit a gang, research has revealed that both passive and nonviolent gang desistance are much more likely. A study connecting motives of gang desistance with methods of exit found that 100% of those who desisted because of pull factors had a non-hostile or passive exit, whereas 30% who desisted due to push factors faced a hostile or violent exit (Pyrooz & Decker, 2011). Passive methods of gang exit consist of fading away, walking away, and geographic relocation.

Violent Exit

Violent gang exits are rare; most members simply fade out of the scene (Decker & Lauritsen, 2002). In Bolden’s (2013) study of gangs in San Antonio and Orlando, only 3 of 23 participants who left the gang suffered violent consequences. Two of the 3 were jumped out, having to physically fight some of the other members. The last was stabbed. When violence is a part of the exit process, it may be similar to initiation strategies of jumping in. This jumping out process, consisting of one or more members physically assaulting the person exiting a gang, can be severe because the intention is to leave lasting harm (Harris, 1988). Violent exits have also been noted with female gangs (Harris, 1988; Shelden et al., 2001). Pyrooz and Decker (2011) found that violent exits were more likely for reasons considered dishonorable by the gang, such as fear of violence or fear of the law, but less likely when a person wanted to desist for prosocial reasons, such as starting a family or for legitimate economic opportunity. In addition, Carson et al. (2013) found that although the most frequent consequence of leaving was reported as being beaten up by other members, only a very small percentage of juveniles reported the instance as being jumped out. In El Salvador, those adhering to religion to desist were held to a high standard. Through monitoring, if a gang found a former member to not be truthful or if they were failing to meet an acceptable standard of devotion to their religion, the gang may then choose to beat up the individual or attack in some way (Rosen & Cruz, 2019). Members believed that desistance could result in being killed but believed that religion was a safeguard in which there was less of a chance of violent retaliation (Cruz & Rosen, 2020). Those desisting from gangs while in prison stated that although the potential of being physically assaulted was high, and being incarcerated with rival gangs brought about a violent environment, they were able to get stronger while incarcerated, and therefore when it came time to desist, their gang would not try to fight them for fear of being harmed themselves (McLean et al., 2017).

The majority of those who leave the gang do so without repercussions, either announcing that they are walking away or passively fading out of the gang by ceasing to participate in gang activities (Bolden, 2013; Decker & Lauritsen, 2002; Decker & Pyrooz, 2011; Hagedorn & Devitt, 1999; Peterson, 2014; Pyrooz & Decker, 2011; Quicker, 1999). Despite all of the rhetoric to the contrary, former gang members in Bolden’s (2013) study did not believe it was likely that they would be harmed for leaving the gang. Fear of repercussions from the former gang or from other gangs differs by geographical context, as respondents in Dziewanski’s (2020) study in South Africa indicated wariness and psychological distress due to fear of violence.

Walking Away/Fading Away

Multiple studies have found that passively walking away from the gang was a common method of gang desistance (Bolden, 2013; Carson et al., 2013; Rosen & Cruz, 2019; Sutton, 2017).

Former members indicated methods of “washing away” their gang association, in which they would delete contact information and sever social media ties to other members. In some cases, it took time for other members to “buy” this strategy of disengagement, continually showing up at a person’s house until they finally understood that person was no longer going to participate in gang activities (Decker et al., 2014). In El Salvador, Rosen and Cruz (2019) found that a large percentage of those who desisted were able to leave due to the leader of the group seeing them as having served enough time in the gang. In Carson et al.’s (2017) study, youth indicated that desistance from their gang was a gradual process, facilitated by school transitions. As peer groups changed, due to either the changing of schools or the moving up in grade level, separation from their gangs occurred, facilitating their desistance.

Geographic Relocation

Primary obstacles to successful desistance could be retribution from former enemies or continued emotional attachment to current gang members that may draw someone back to the gang when traumatic events occur. One of the most successful methods for desisting from gangs is geographic relocation (Decker & Van Winkle, 1996). In Bolden’s (2013) study, five people leaving the gang indicated that moving to another city or state was their primary mechanism for desistance. Another three participants left the gang by joining the military. The geographic separation from a gang was necessary for many individuals to avoid being trapped by emotional attachment. Even with a desire to cease gang activities, the relationships with other gang members still entailed strong emotions and intense histories. Individuals leaving gangs recognized that these psychological ties could draw them back to the gang if negative things happened to people they cared about. Creating geographic space from the gang served to alleviate this tension (Bolden, 2013). Changing schools also provided former youth gang members with the ability to desist from their gangs (Carson et al., 2017). If a gang is school based, then leaving that school is proxy for geographic relocation, reducing those emotional ties that bind (Pyrooz et al., 2014). One of the major recommendations from former youth gang members for aiding others in desistance was moving to a new area, which helped more permanently sever ties between the youth and the gang in which they were involved (Sharkey et al., 2015). Even when it does not completely sever ties, moving away may be enough to keep people uninvolved with a gang and its activities (Del Carmen et al., 2009). For example, a former member noted that he moved away from the area in which his gang operated as a way to lessen the risk of his own engagement with the gang. Although he continually struggled with complete desistance, he was doing his best to keep away from gang activity for the sake of his mother, and physical removal from the area created some distance from gang life (Gormally, 2015).

Regional Findings

Successful gang exits have been documented through research in geographic areas reporting intense gang violence. Dzwienski (2020) studied the gang exits of 24 participants in Cape Town, South Africa. Despite similar rhetoric about the impossibility of leaving a gang, all of the respondents were successful in doing so. Kelly and Ward (2020) also studied gang disengagement in South Africa through the lens of resilience, finding that disengagement followed themes such as social support, religious support, agency, and supportive prosocial identities. Despite the rhetoric of gang membership being for life, Rosen and Cruz (2019) were able to identify successful instances of desistance in El Salvador through in-depth interviews with 24 former gang members and more than 1,000 surveys of incarcerated gang members. In addition, a follow-up study on El Salvadorian gang desistance by Cruz and Rosen (2020) found that in contrast to gang desistance in the United states, the process was entrenched in group-related variables rather than the prosocial, life-course variables. Notwithstanding the governance gangs hold over prison in Rio de Janeiro, individuals were still able to desist from membership through signaling behaviors (Johnson & Densley, 2018).

In studying a program of spiritual intervention in Denmark, Deuchar (2020) found that mental health issues, weariness of gang lifestyles, and the onset of becoming parents were all events that triggered the desire for desistance. The success or failure of leaving the gang resulted from the individual’s ability to reconstruct their own identity and accept a broader spiritual or holistic narrative of masculinity. In addition, a boxing program called New Start proved successful in aiding gang members in their desistance by providing an outlet and a community that did not involve gang membership. Those in the program had opportunities for benefits, such as their names being removed from the “national gang offenders list” upon successful completion of the program (Deuchar et al., 2016, p. 730).

A study conducted on a program created to work with Aboriginal gang members in Canada presented unique elements of involvement in gangs and desistance. Due to social isolation, Aboriginal gangs formed to create a community because members were considered outsiders to the rest of society. Successful desistance from crime was still documented without members having to leave their gang (Deane et al., 2007).

Youth gang desistance in Scotland was largely due to youth finding other ways to feel secure in their self-identity through social and economic support. Those who left the gang did so in a series of steps that allowed for a personal desistance process that was also recognized by the community (Gormally, 2015). Research on gang desistance in prisons in Scotland and England yielded similar results. Gang desistance in prison began with “erosion of gang solidarities,” followed by members “initiating primary desistance,” all while having to do so with hindrances of prison operating around them (McLean et al., 2017).

Conclusion

Gang desistance can be a simple event or an extremely complex process of disentanglement. There are myriad motivating factors for desistance that may be intertwined or compounded. Studies have shown that most people will desist from gang activity, and the majority will be able to exit in a nonviolent manner. The motivations and exit strategies may be individualized, making it difficult to narrow down precise programming for gang exit, but the amount of research demonstrating successful gang exits is quite promising.

Further Reading

References