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Leading Edge

Exit Strategy

This fall, the City of Toronto will test a U of T program that offers youths alternatives to gang life

News stories about pre-dawn police raids and mass arrests in Toronto’s low-income neighbourhoods have become commonplace in recent years. But this fall, the City of Toronto will open a new chapter in its fight against gangs by launching an intensive $5-million pilot program that targets 300 adolescents who seem destined for gang life, or who are already gang members and want a way out.

This federally funded program is innovative because it was designed in close consultation with U of T criminologist Scot Wortley, a leading expert on Canada’s urban youth gangs.

The new program will offer the selected youths counselling for anger management and substance abuse; employment advice and training in marketable skills; opportunities to participate in sports and cultural programs; and support for their families. Wortley will evaluate the results while the program is operating, so officials can decide if this new approach should be used elsewhere.

Through their research, Wortley and his colleague Julian Tanner, a sociologist at U of T Scarborough, have learned that most hard-core Toronto gang members are not young teens but adults in their late teens and 20s. Wortley observes that some teens like to adopt the gang-member pose, but may not be involved with criminal activities, such as drug dealing or possessing weapons. Contrary to the impression of many teachers and other authority figures, teens don’t often “cross the line and engage in crime for economic purposes,” says Wortley.

Wortley and Tanner will analyze whether the program successfully diverts youth from criminal activity and into the mainstream economy. Helping young adults land a job they can respect is the trickiest piece of the puzzle. As Tanner recounts, one gang member they interviewed said he deals drugs because it’s preferable to working in a running-shoe store dressed as a referee. “Many of these kids have nothing but disdain for these sorts of jobs,” he says. “That is going to be one of the challenges.”

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