Peer mentoring in criminal justice

Dr Gillian Buck's authoritative review of peer mentoring with people in the criminal justice system.

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This is a guest post by Dr Gillian Buck, of the University of Chester (@gillybuck on Twitter).

What we know about peer mentoring

Despite the explosion of peer led practices across criminal justice in recent years, remarkably little research has examined the practice. Peer mentoring involves criminalised people and community members (often with a personal interest in criminal justice) working in helping relationships in the criminal justice system. It can involve one-to-one sessions, groups or informal leisure activities. My new book Peer Mentoring in Criminal Justice (2020) explores the practice in detail, fore fronting the experience of mentors and ‘mentees’ engaged with this activity. This blog summarises the book’s main themes.

 Peer mentoring happens around the world, with mentors supporting people in criminal justice systems in (at least) the UK, Sweden, Finland, USA, Canada & Australia. Peer mentors can support people to set personal goals and work together toward a fairer society. Peer mentoring often takes place in the voluntary sector of criminal justice – which has a workforce bigger than prisons and probation combined. This sector can be influential, but also faces funding challenges.

Peer mentoring can reduce reoffending, aggression and drug use and help people feel more in control of their lives. It offers high contact time and flexibility for mentees and can provide a bridge to other services. Peer mentoring also offers an employment opportunity to people who may struggle to re-enter the workplace with a conviction. Peer Mentoring may support ‘desistance’ efforts by building new social ties and encouraging self-belief, but there can be problems to overcome, such as having enough suitable mentors, getting the ‘match’ right between mentor and mentee, making sure mentors are not stressed or re-traumatised.

 

Theorising peer mentoring

People who have ‘been there’ often have credibility and unique knowledge, they are trusted and can be inspirational to others. Mentors also act as a supportive audience for the changes people are trying to make – offering acceptance and encouragement. Peer mentors often speak in plain, straightforward language, not professional jargon. Mentoring is a process of learning alongside people, rather than doing things to people. Groups of mentors and mentees can form strong bonds and lift the voices of those who feel unheard. Mentors may try to challenge negative stereotypes held about ‘ex-offenders’ and influence justice and welfare practices in positive ways.

Identity

People who can envision a positive self away from criminal pasts are often more successful at leaving crime behind. Peer mentors can help people write these ‘self-stories’, providing a role model and support. Personal experience of going straight offers mentors a credibility that many other workers don’t have. Criminal records can make people feel labelled and excluded, but mentors try to help people feel valued and included. They also help with the practicalities of coping with life after prison, often sitting alongside people as they work with other services. Sometimes mentors share parts of their own stories to build trust and offer advice based on experience, but this can bring up negative emotions and should be done with care and support. It is also important to remember that everyone’s personal experience is different.

Self-Agency

Peer mentors are often recruited because they are good helpers but may still be dealing with struggles of their own and can sometimes lack confidence in their role. Self-care, peer support and supervision are therefore very important. Mentees find that being listened to can offer them a new perspective on the world. Mentoring often happens in the community (shops, gyms, cafes, outdoors). This helps people to practice their new lives away from being a ‘user’ of a service. New routines and friendships can help compensate for the lives people are leaving behind. Mentors help to encourage mentees as they make these changes, highlighting personal strengths and helping sort through problems mentees feel overwhelmed by.

Core Conditions of Peer Mentoring

Peer mentoring is designed around the mentee. Mentees are encouraged to set their own goals rather than being instructed or managed. Three important elements are caring, listening and taking small steps. ‘Offender’ emotions can often be neglected

in criminal justice, yet caring, human connections and non-judgement can build self-esteem. Listening helps people to unburden problems, feel less overwhelmed and feel heard. ‘Small Steps’ or short-term goals motivate people and help them to see progress made; this offers people hope. As lapses and relapses are common when people make changes, mentors aim to not over-react to slip ups.

Change

Mentees need to feel ready to change but may also need help to feel prepared. Role models can spur people on, helping them to feel ready. Mentors also often encourage mentees to look forwards, not backwards. Yet people can be fearful as they leave crime behind. Mentees can experience loss and isolation and pain, but mentors can help ease these feelings. Much peer mentoring aims to change the shape of services and systems rather than individuals (e.g. addressing the social disadvantage that leads to criminal convictions). When people who have left crime behind are visible it can help others believe it is possible, yet this carries personal risks to those involved, including being recognised, retraumatised, or belittled.

Power

Peer mentoring is imbalanced in terms of power. Organisations influence mentoring and sometimes restrict access to mentors with criminal histories. Peer mentors are carefully recruited, often using similar criteria used for other types of helping professionals; they are trained in similar ways (to see mentees as in need of improvement); and supervised – adding another layer of influence. The hazard here is that voices of experience become tokenistic and mentors become part of the system they often critique. People with convictions often feel more closely scrutinised and fear harsher sanctions if they make a mistake. Yet professional processes can also empower mentors and help them feel valued.

 

To connect with other organisations working in this area, visit www.clinks.org

To connect with researchers in this area, visit www.crimvol.org/

To connect with other ‘leaders with lived experience’, visit www.lexmovement.org

Thanks to Annie Spratt for permission to use the header image which was originally published on Unsplash. You can see Annie’s work here.

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