About 20 per cent of the inmates at the Edmonton Institution belong to gangs. ((National Parole Board))

Edmonton's police gang unit believes giving first-time offenders counselling instead of jail terms may keep them away from the influence of gang members.

The unit is proposing a court diversion program for young gang members who are arrested for the first time that would offer counselling and addiction help instead of jail sentences.

The new strategy would keep them away from gangs who are gaining strength within Edmonton's institutions, say police.

"They tend to gather strength in a prison environment. They can actively recruit members," said Const. Joe Lewis with the gang unit.

His partner says once young gang members go to jail, they often slide deeper into the culture in exchange for protection during the time they're locked up.

"They get an education — everything from police tactics to which lawyers to contact," Const. Frank Metselaar told CBC News.

"What's a better way to move drugs. What's a better way to prostitute women. What's a better way to do a break and enter. They're learning a lot of these in jails."

In 2007, the warden of the Edmonton Institution maximum-security prison said about 20 per cent of its 234 inmates belonged to gangs, one of the highest concentrations of gang members in any federal institution in Canada.

Lewis believes the court diversion approach can save some offenders from becoming hardcore criminals.

"That's when we have to get them because once they get indoctrinated into the gang two, three, four years and they've been charged two or three times then it's hard to get away."

The idea is being considered by Alberta's solicitor general and the courts.