Research highlights the importance of peer mentoring for youth offenders

Creaney, S. (2020) Children’s Voices—are we Listening? Progressing Peer Mentoring in the Youth Justice System, Child Care in Practice, 26:1, 22-37, DOI:10.1080/13575279.2018.1521381

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Although there is evidence that indicates the importance and effectiveness of mentoring, there is still a lack of empirical research on peer mentoring within the Youth Justice System
  • This current study examines the pros, cons, and challenges of having young offenders as peer mentors, as well as identifying themes regarding relationship-based practice literature
  • Four overarching themes were identified from the qualitative data: (1) “experiential knowledge”, (2) building trusted relationships,  (3) barriers to using young offenders as peer mentors, and (4) music mentoring
  • “Experiential knowledge”:young offenders and ex-young offenders, who have first-hand lived experiences with the criminal justice system, were more prepared to help and support their peers
  • Building trusted relationships: Youth particularly valued having relationships with professionals, who are ex-offenders and have experience with the criminal justice system
  • Barriers to using young offenders as peer mentors: Findings notes the existing “blame culture” in the UK, where many professionals don’t trust, or have concerns about, having young offenders as mentors
  • Music mentoring: Results indicate the usefulness of having a participant-led music project, that treats youth as assets (not problems), integrated into peer mentoring programs

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Whilst there is research evidence on the benefits of mentoring and its non-significant effects, the practice of peer mentoring in the Youth Justice System has received little empirical attention. This paper seeks to critically explore the benefits, limitations and challenges of using young offenders as peer mentors. First, the paper reviews relevant literature. Second, it explains the aims and methodology of the study. Third, the paper presents the findings and discussion. Findings suggest that young offenders who are peer mentors have experiential knowledge and can act as positive role models and sources of hope, potentially helping mentees to (re)engage with services. Findings also suggest that young people particularly value building empathic and collaborative relationships with professionals who are ex-offenders and have lived experiences of contact with the criminal justice system. The article also introduces issues and challenges associated with peer mentoring, notably professionals being risk avoidant and disinclined to use young offenders as peer mentors. It also draws on a participant-led music project as a potentially useful means of integrating peer mentoring. The evidence from the study suggests that children and young people’s active and meaningful participation in this project can help to facilitate the process of change, including healing, growth and identity transformation.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Current and former young offenders, who have “experiential knowledge” (wisdom or know-how acquired through first-hand or lived experiences of contact with the criminal justice system), were described by participants as often better equipped to help others in need of support. The insight they provide into the lived experience of being a young offender can be beneficial to mentees, as illustrated in these typical quotations:

 … unless you’ve experienced that, you cannot tell them … you cannot relate to them … Unless it’s happened to you, or someone that you know, there’s no way you can fully understand how they’re feeling. (Zain, 17)

Yeah. I would love to do that. Help young adults, like, my age and that … What road I took. I wouldn’t want that for any other people my age. It’s not good. (Aaron, 17)

Someone who’s been through it is a lot more experienced. Been through … everything you can probably think of … That’s gonna help … a kid who’s in a struggle now … That’s one thing I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to work with kids with the same problems as me. (Kevin, 16)

Those who have “gone through an experience” (Borkman, 1976, p. 4) and overcome adversity, can be living proof that positive changes can be achieved and replicated (Peer Power, 2018). Mentees can be “especially appreciative of receiving help from someone who has walked in their shoes” (Boyce et al., 2009, p. ix). Mentors who are young offenders may have authentic empathy and perhaps better relate to mentees than professional authority figures. As Borkman (1976, p. 3) notes, “He respects a certain authority in those who have experienced what he has experienced”. Essentially, mentors can put their lived experiences of offending and contact with the justice system to “good use” (Clinks, 2013, p. 6), and draw “on their experiences to help others avoid their mistakes … ” (Maruna, 2017, p. 9). They can impart knowledge and provide advice and guidance to mentees who are experiencing difficulties, feeling isolated or disempowered and in need practical and emotional assistance (Fletcher & Batty, 2012). Moreover, as argued by Wahl (1999, p. 476), supporting others can be “self-enhancing”, and give meaning and purpose to one’s life.


To access this article, click here.