Best way to save young men from life of crime may surprise you – Ross Deuchar

Police stage a drugs raid, but enforcement should only be part of the strategy against organised crime, says Ross Deuchar (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
Police stage a drugs raid, but enforcement should only be part of the strategy against organised crime, says Ross Deuchar (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
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Marginalised young men have moved from gangs engaged in recreational, territorial street violence into dealing drugs and organised crime, and tackling the root causes of this problem requires more than just law enforcement, writes academic Ross Deuchar, whose research involves speaking to gang members in Scotland and other parts of the world.

The latest police-recorded crime statistics suggest the number of homicides in Scotland has significantly decreased from the figure recorded in 10 years ago, and reached its lowest level in more than 40 years. Statistics also suggest has knife crime has dropped dramatically, and in the west of Scotland there has been a significant decline in the type of territorial gang violence that was once commonplace there.

However, unfortunately gangs are still very much part of the west of Scotland’s landscape – but the nature of their activity and the way they present themselves has simply changed and evolved. I suggest that there has been a general shift from expressive criminality – in the form of recreational, territorial street violence – to instrumental criminality – in the form of drug dealing – in the west of the country.

My suggestion is based on recent empirical evidence. With my fellow criminologists Robert McLean, James Densley and Simon Harding, I have been involved in producing a cluster of high-profile research papers based on groundbreaking research into gang culture and its links with organised crime in the west of Scotland. Through interviews conducted with more than 40 young gang members, we have found that there has been a change of attention among disadvantaged, young working class men from defending physical territory through gang violence onto drug sales.

Those young men we talked to indicted that, having spent some time on the streets engaging in territorial violence as young teenagers, the lure of making easy money had led them to begin dealing – initially with other members of their ‘young teams’. Collectively, their drug dealing careers began with the social supply of cannabis. Purchasing weed from others was then gradually replaced with in-house cultivation and progress was made from selling to friends to acquiring their own ‘customers’.

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Some described to us the way in which they gradually diversified their products and sold drugs like cocaine, while others exploited the currency of image-conscious bodybuilding culture by selling steroids – with the latter, as class C drugs, having the added benefit of carrying a lesser punishment should they be apprehended. The internet allowed these young guys to source diverse drug markets, and through social media platforms and online apps they were able to arrange 24-hour “dial-a-deal” deliveries to customers’ front doors.

Some of the men we spoke to had increasingly begun to position themselves on the edges of organised crime. Ditching their former mates in the schemes, they had initially begun to make drug runs to England. They picked up drugs from middle-level dealers in prominent English cities, distributed them back in Scotland and then made drop-offs of money. Others had become even more entrepreneurial, working extensively with gangs south of the border to engage in wider-scale drug networks and evidently pressurising vulnerable individuals to store drugs and proceeds in safe houses.

Our research demonstrates the way in which initial involvement in street gang membership in Scotland can and does on occasion lead on to participating in organised crime. Although territorial gang culture has diminished and violence and homicide has decreased, gangs are still highly active in Scotland but simply in a different form. So what strategies can be put in place in Scotland to address these latest issues?

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In its national strategy for reducing the harm caused by organised crime, the Scottish Government has presented a four-pronged approach, focused on the need for Police Scotland to divert people from becoming involved in it; deter organised crime groups by supporting private, public and third-sector organisations to protect themselves and each other; detect and prosecute those involved in organised crime; and disrupt organised crime groups. However, recognising the clearly established links between income and wealth inequality and criminal outcomes, the Scottish Government’s Justice in Scotland: Vision and Priorities strategy also draws attention to the links between income inequality and criminogenic outcomes while also highlighting the relationship between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and future offending patterns, within the overall context of prevention and early intervention. I believe that it is this latter policy that holds the most potential.

Over the last decade, my wider research on gang culture and criminal behaviour has consistently demonstrated that early exposure to abuse, neglect, various forms of household dysfunction combined with wider systemic issues including poverty and social deprivation leads to the type of personal trauma that often stimulates gang membership. In contexts as far and wide as Denmark, the United States, Hong Kong as well as Scotland, my in-depth discussions with gang members have demonstrated to me the way in which, in their attempts to move beyond experiences of marginalisation, they have begun to engage in street violence. In many cases, the gradual accumulation of criminal ‘knowhow’ and networks has enabled many of these same young men to progress to organised crime.

I have found that the best means of preventing offending and reoffending among the male gang members I have worked with across the world has been quite simply through offering unconditional social support combined with a means of earning a legitimate income through paid employment. The very best gang intervention programmes I have had the privilege to engage with have provided these men with the type of love, compassion and peace that they had never before experienced, combined with the skills that ultimately made them more employable in mainstream society.

Tackling the root causes of gang culture and its implications for drug distribution thus involves moving beyond a reactive law enforcement perspective of diversion, deterrence, detection and disruption. This is a need to ensure that wider justice policy rhetoric focused on tackling inequality and childhood disadvantage hits the ground in Scotland.

As we continue to fight back against the evolving nature and influence of gang culture in Scotland, we need to ensure we continually adopt an ACE-aware and trauma-informed approach to tackle its root causes. Only then will be able to prevent the further diversification of drug dealing and widening influence of organised crime, and enable the building of safer, stronger and flourishing Scottish communities.

Ross Deuchar is a professor and director of the Interdisciplinary Research Unit on Crime, Policing and Social Justice within the University of the West of Scotland