Beyond Youth Custody

How to tailor the resettlement process to meet the needs of gang-involved young people

Joel Dawes
Community Support Worker - Nacro

Whilst working on a resettlement programme for Nacro, I encountered many active and ex-gang members for whom, successful resettlement has been a significant tool in reducing their offending. I have experienced many challenges and complications when engaging with these young people whilst supporting them to change their perspective and behaviour. I will share some of my experiences with you.

Before release

Before a young person is released from custody, there is a need for intensive intervention, to address the many issues that may have arisen whilst in custody and the ones that may occur once they are back in the community. For instance, gang affiliations and reputations will follow young people from the street into custody. This often affects them in two major ways: they would either be a perpetrator of violence or a victim of violence. As a result, it is not uncommon for new allegiances and enemies to be formed in custody which will then effect where the young person could be placed on release.

I believe it is important that the resettlement process starts in the early stages of the sentence and continues throughout. Clearly this is a far better way of developing a trusting relationship, which is imperative in order to keep the young person engaged. A lack of trust becomes counterproductive towards the overall objectives, and makes any work or interventions conducted in the community harder. I have found this to be true in instances where the young person has had very little contact with the resettlement worker prior to their release.

After release

It is important to give the young person the opportunity to work, train or further their education within the first few days after their release. This ensures that their time is occupied quickly, and reduces the opportunities they have to revert to their lifestyle before they were in custody.

When an employer or education provider comes into prison and meets the young person, it shows them that the resettlement officer is working to help them and that the establishment is willing to give them a fair chance. It is important to be open to non-conventional education providers as the young person may not be comfortable in a class room setting. Preparing the young person for what they should expect when they enter the world of work is an element that should be included in their interventions before they are released from custody.


For many gang members the area where they live is a major part of their identity. This is likely to be where they were raised and most often is the place where their gang is based. If they are resettled back into this location, they would be back amongst their pro criminal peers, facing many of the same issues which they experienced before they went into custody. If the young person is ready for change, a new neighbourhood often provides a fresh start. They will become aware of new opportunities outside of the area they call home.

Having the right mind

The suggestions that I have made will all fail if the young person’s mind is not in the ‘right place’, meaning they no longer want to continue their criminal activities and association with their gang. It is important to work on their thought processes such as consequential thinking and priorities. For example, if the young person sets their priorities as staying out of trouble, improving their education and finding employment, this makes the resettlement process more effective.

Ensuring the young person has a realistic expectation of what to expect when released is crucial. As resettlement workers we can line up opportunities such as work experience or apprenticeships, however, it is essential to remember that their income will be significantly less than they would have earned if they were selling drugs, for instance. If the young person does not understand this, it could be a contributing factor to a failed resettlement.

And so …

Working with gang members comes with many complexities, and the examples I have given are not guaranteed to work. The resettlement process needs to be tailored to the needs of the young person, dependent on issues such as how established they are within the gang. Those on the periphery may find it a lot easier to end their allegiance than those who are leaders. There are also issues of working within the regime of the secure estate, such as the issues many gang members have with accessing education due to conflicts they have.

Despite the complexities outlined above, the rewards of seeing an entrenched gang member decide to ‘go straight’ and get a job or go to college far outweighs any negatives or problems you may encounter.

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Resettlement of young offenders: informing practice, improving outcomes