11 Jun 2018

'Gangs are changing... We should too'

12:54 pm on 11 June 2018

By Jarrod Gilbert*

Opinion - There are a number of words you could use to describe the Mongrel Mob, but believe it or not the best one right now might be 'change'.

Mongrel Mob patches

Mongrel Mob patches Photo: Supplied/ Jarrod Gilbert

Gangs of the 1970s and 1980s were made up of young men. Members were teenagers or in their early 20s. A man of 30 would have been considered old. Now a man of 30 in the gangs is considered young. Old men dominate.

Men in their 50s and 60s don't behave like men in their 20s. This is obvious, to all of you in your 50s and 60s reading this, and it's demonstrably true for crooks.

Crime data show that a person's likelihood of offending spikes in the early years and then drops away sharply. The same is true of recidivism. Older men who get out of prison are less likely to reoffend than younger men.

In short, the gangs are changing. But the views of those who seek to tackle them are not.

Ever since the failure of Rob Muldoon's social programmes in the 1980s authorities have tried to smash gangs out of existence, instead of seeking to solve the problems that gave rise to them. The intent was that enough pressure would simply break the gangs up and destroy them. It hasn't worked.

In some ways it has made things worse. Back in 1930 a sociologist named Frank Tannenbaum suggested that American gangs were actually strengthened by conflict with their communities.

The gangs are deeply entrenched in communities, and much of their leadership, having gotten old, is looking back on their lives and wanting better for their kids. But how do you change an organisation that has prided itself on being the worst of the worst? You do it with help.

Hold your breath, because this is where things become difficult. We need to work with the gangs. Get along side them. Give them a hand.

Before you think I'm out of my mind, I'll type quickly to explain why.

For every man wearing a patch there is a wife or a partner, there are kids, there are entire communities. People who are probably not reading this.

Mongrel mob member puts on patch for the first time.

Mongrel mob member puts on patch for the first time. Photo: Supplied/ Jarrod Gilbert

Those overwhelmingly affected by the problems created by or surrounding gangs are not the middle classes who hold such great fear and anger toward them, but those close to them. We need to work with those members for their benefit. But for ours too.

Take for example, a gang family mired in abuse. Those kids will become the next generation of offenders. The next wave of troubles that will impact on us, either directly through crime or less directly through criminal justice costs.

If we were to reduce the incidence of family abuse, or reduce the use of methamphetamine, we may have all of the same troubles with gangs we have now but minus some really important ones.

This we can do by working with pro-social leaders, and through existing state agencies, to create real change. Not the populist and failed policies to 'crush the gangs' favoured by the current police minister (and every police minister before him), but something that is at least achievable.

We may not like to change. It's comfortable doing what we've always done. But if we do that we will get the same results. By all means, those who think they can crush the gangs out of existence can continue doing what they're doing. But when we find ourselves in 10 years' time in the same position, we will be no better off.

If we make some small changes in the right places now however, everything else can stay the same, but with potentially significant payoffs. It might not be our best case scenario of destroying the gangs, but we will have a better society for our efforts.

Whether you believe it or not, the Mongrel Mob is changing. We should too.

*Jarrod Gilbert is a senior lecturer at the University of Canterbury and the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions. He has undertaken numerous studies on crime and justice matters and focuses on research with practical applications. He is the author of 'Patched the History of Gangs in New Zealand', an award-winning book based on six years of ethnographic research.

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