Groundbreaking study is a cautionary tale for group mentoring programs

puzzleEditors Note: This is an important study with results that are promising but with a note of caution. I urge you to consider their implications, especially for group mentoring programs. 

O’Donnell, C. R. & Williams, I. L. The Buddy System: A 35-Year Follow-Up of Criminal Offenses Clinical Psychological Science 2167702612456907, first published on October 18, 2012 as doi:10.1177/2167702612456907 

Summarized by post-doctoral fellow Adar Ben-Eliyahu


High-risk youth are more likely to commit offenses as adults. One intervention that used mentoring to decrease risks of arrests and crime is the Buddy System (Hawai’i). In the Buddy System, which was launched 35 years ago, high-risk youth were matched with an adult.

The results were complex; for those youth who had been arrested in the year before the intervention, the Buddy System significantly decreased subsequent arrest rates. However, for those youth who had not been arrested in the year before the intervention, the Buddy System significantly increased subsequent arrest rates (O’Donnell et al., 1979).  In order to understand these mixed findings, O’Donnell and Williams (2012) conducted a follow up analysis 35 years after the Buddy System program ended.


 Over the span of three years (2008-2011), 35 years after the Buddy System (Hawai’i) program intervention, court arrest records were obtained on 475 men and women who participated in original program or who were randomly assigned to the no-treatment control group. To explore the role of relationships in deviant behvioars, the researchers also looked at whether the arrests were characterized by the involvement of other individuals.


The results of this study indicated the continuation of both the positive and the negative effects of the Buddy System 35 years later. Importantly, rather than examining overall group differences (i.e., between treatment versus control groups) the researchers looked at differences by previous arrest and gender. It was through these subgroup comparisons that the striking differences emerged.

  • Buddy System participants with an arrest prior to referral to the program 35 years ago, had lower lifetime arrest rate than those of the corresponding controls (54.9% and 75%, respectively)
  • Female participants who had not had an arrest prior to referral to the program 35 years ago, had nearly three times higher arrest rates than the corresponding controls (29.2% and 10.3%, respectively). The difference for corresponding males was not significant.


After the first study, the researchers suggested that the engagement in criminal behavior was influenced by the  friendships that were formed among participants at high and low risk for delinquency.

  • For youth who were at higher-risk for delinquency, forging friendships with lower risk youth had beneficial effects. Lower risk youth might have introduced them to a broader range of noncriminal activities and relationships, which may have continued into their early adult lives and reduced their chances of being arrested. In other words, for some of these youth, the Buddy System program may have changed their subsequent activities, relationships and mutual influences enough to positively change the trajectories of their lives into adulthood
  • For young women who were at lower-risk for delinquency, however, the Buddy System appears to have led to changes in their adult relationships in ways that led to negative trajectories. Arrest records showed that many of the young woman committed crimes (particularly drug-related crimes) with male partners, suggesting shared participation in deviant behavior. The authors suggest that some of the females may have formed friendships with arrested participants in the Buddy System that “facilitated a trajectory of relationships that supported criminal behavior.”


  • Participation in mentoring programs, such as the Buddy System, may facilitate changes in activities, relationships, and mutual influence that benefit certain participants, but not necessarily others.
  • Joint activities that include both high- and lower-risk adolescents and that lead to friendships may be particularly harmful for lower-risk adolescent females.


  • One implication for mentoring programs, especially those with a group component, is to design the program to reduce and possibly even prevent contact between higher- and lower-risk adolescents. Doing so reduces the possibility of an iatrogenic effect.
  • The difficulty, of course, is that reduced contact with lower-risk adolescents may also reduce the benefit of group activities for higher-risk youth.
  • More generally, these findings underscore the need to consider the context in which mentoring occurs and to structure those contexts in ways that build on the positive peer-modeling functions while minimizing the negative functions. The key, however, is to provide a high degree of prosocial adult support and scaffolding in facilitating such interactions.

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