It’s widely reported that there’s been an increase in street violence, particularly in London - with the number of knife and gun crimes rising. While the causes are complex and multifaceted, victims and perpetrators of serious youth violence often lack a relationship with a trusted adult.
One way to help reduce crime is to use ex-offenders as peer mentors. Those who have overcome adversity and stopped offending can act as positive role models for their peers – especially teenagers who are at risk of committing crime or being drawn into gang activity.
My research found that young people on court orders really value building empathetic and collaborative relationships with professionals who are ex-offenders, and have first-hand experience with the criminal justice system.
When carefully selected, provided with extensive training and given tailored support, former young offenders can be uniquely well-equipped to help their peers in need of support. And they can encourage young people on court orders to engage with criminal justice services and make positive changes in their lives.
Peer mentors can offer advice and support to young people who are experiencing personal, social or emotional diﬃculties, because they have first-hand experience overcoming such problems themselves. Projects operating around the world offer proof that this can work in practice.
One approach in the US is to recruit ex-offenders as credible messengers who can build trust and inspire change among young people. These mentors, who have transformed their lives, are viewed as assets who can help motivate young people – who are often marginalised and disadvantaged – to make better decisions and desist from crime. The project has been shown to reduce re-offending and improve young people’s self-esteem.
Similarly, the St Giles Trust, based in London, works with young people exposed to or at risk of violence. Their SOS project carefully recruits ex-offenders to engage young people.
The effectiveness of this approach was borne out in my research: in 2016 and 2017, I spoke with 20 young people and 20 professionals from a youth offending service in England, which works with young people who get into trouble with the law. One young person in my study said:
…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.
Teenagers who are at risk of committing crime or being drawn into gang activity may be reluctant to talk to authority figures. But if the person they’re speaking to is an ex-offender themselves, they may be more forthcoming. For example, another of my participants, Anthony (aged 17), spoke passionately about a trusting relationship he had built with one of his workers, who had experience in the care and criminal justice systems.
Anthony said his worker was non judgemental and able to empathise and offer guidance when he was in a diﬃcult situation. He described how he has contacted his worker on many occasions in a state of panic and valued receiving emotional and practical assistance. Anthony described his worker as inspirational, and was keen to follow in his footsteps in the future, by securing a job which involves caring for others.
Another of my participants – Zain, aged 17 – was also inspired by his mentor:
I’d love to do his job. He sort of inspired me. Cos I know about his past, he knows about mine. And it’s pretty similar, do you know what I mean? Grew up on a bad estate, got into drugs.
The right choice
Yet within the justice system there is still some scepticm about whether ex-offenders can steer their peers away from crime.
There are challenges: young people may lack the ability to offer emotional and practical assistance to their peers who are experiencing mental health problems. For this reason, it’s crucial to provide ex-offenders with appropriate training and ongoing support.
What’s more, they may have their own unresolved traumas, which could make it more difficult for them to form constructive relationships with both their peers and professionals. And this is why it’s important for authorities to screen and select the right people.
Yet peer mentoring can be an antidote to the disconnected, unhearing and technocratic criminal justice process. And the young people who engage in mentoring can discover that they have talents and abilities they didn’t know they had.
Because they’re seen as role models, rather than authority figures, young people who are ex-offenders can forge positive and meaningful connections with their peers, to the benefit of both parties. Above all, mentoring gives young people who have overcome their own hardships a chance to help others do the same.