Mentoring and peer mentoring in criminal justice

Work with offenders on today’s HMI Probation’s latest Academic Insight

For the last two years, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation has been publishing a series of short research briefings under the branding of “Academic Insights”. The inspectorate commissions leading academics to present their views on specific topics, with the aim of promoting informed debate and aiding understanding of what helps and what hinders probation and youth offending services. It is a prolific series with a new “Insight” published every couple of months.

The latest edition looks at mentoring and peer mentoring in the criminal justice system and is written by Gill Buck, the UK’s leading authority on the subject. Dr Buck is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Chester University. She is a qualified social worker with over ten years’ experience, spending most of her career in youth offending services.


Mentoring and ‘peer’ mentoring are increasing features of probation and youth justice settings. Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) defines mentoring as ‘a one-to-one non-judgmental relationship’ in which ‘an individual (mentor) gives time to support and encourage another (mentee)’. In the context of youth justice, it is a relationship between a young person and supportive adult, established to help the young person achieve their goals. ‘Peer’ mentors are community members, often with lived experiences of criminal justice, who work or volunteer to help people in rehabilitative settings. Mentoring can be a diverse practice, encompassing one-to-one sessions, group work or more informal leisure activities.

Peer mentoring schemes are common in Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) but less so within the National Probation Service (NPS); it will be interesting to see if peer mentoring flourishes when the probation service is all brought into the NPS at the end of June this year.

The impact of mentoring

Dr Buck reviews the evidence on the impact of (peer) mentoring on reducing reoffending. There is not yet a robust evidence base but there are a number of evaluations which record positive outcomes. There are a number of additional benefits including the fact that mentors are often to provide their mentees with much more time and support than is available through statutory services such as probation. Dr Buck discusses the increasing evidence that mentoring can provide an effective bridge to other services such as drug and alcohol treatment, housing and employment.

There is also emerging evidence that peer mentoring can benefit mentors themselves. The opportunity to volunteer and “give back” can be a key component in desistance journeys and peer mentors with criminal records can often gain experience and, eventually, paid employment more easily, in some cases going on to train to become fully qualified workers in a number of roles across the social justice sector.

In her own research, Dr Buck has tracked three core conditions within peer mentoring relationships which result in emotional/relational benefits: caring, listening and encouraging small steps. She highlights the way that these person-centred features offer an antidote to what can often be experienced as disconnected, unhearing and technocratic criminal justice system practices. Mentoring schemes sometimes also forge longer lasting support networks.

Potential problems

Dr Buck helpfully highlights six common factors found to contribute to failed mentoring relationships:

  • mentor [or mentee] abandonment
  • perceived lack of mentee motivation
  • unfulfilled (or mismatched) expectations
  • deficiencies in mentor relational skills, including the inability to bridge cultural divides
  • family interference
  • inadequate agency support.


Dr Buck concludes by stating that  (peer) mentoring has clear potential to assist people with the difficult process of leaving crime behind and to mediate some of the more excluding and limiting practices of the criminal justice system. Mentors who draw upon lived experiences can potentially bond with, relate to, and inspire mentees in a personalised way. They are also able to offer high levels of support, reassurance and encouragement and fill gaps in existing services.

She recommends that organisations looking to develop and sustain (peer) mentoring programmes, should invest in the programmes long term and provide training for staff and managers about the potential benefits and shortfalls of this approach.

She also recommends that, given the practical and emotional demands of (peer) mentoring, good quality training, support and (therapeutic) supervision for mentors will also be very important to maintain safe and ethical practice and avoid punitive dilution of mentoring values – i.e. using mentors as unpaid support staff rather than people who have the chance to form a more personal helping bond.