Mentoring for Youth who Have Been Arrested or Incarcerated

Mentoring for Youth who Have Been Arrested or IncarceratedMentoring is a widely-used prevention and intervention strategy for supporting youth who are involved in the criminal justice system. Often these programs emphasize mentoring relationships for youth who are early in their engagement in the juvenile justice system or diverting them from involvement altogether ⎯ after an initial arrest or in lieu of sentencing for a minor crime. Recent years have also seen substantial investments, particularly from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the U.S. Department of Justice more broadly, to provide mentoring as a support service for youth (and adults) who are leaving periods of incarceration (or preparing to do so) and re-entering their communities. See below for a listing of investments OJJDP has made in this area in recent funding cycles.

All programs of this type also place a premium on outcomes related to avoiding recidivism (i.e., being re-arrested for criminal activities or otherwise deepening their engagement with the juvenile or criminal justice systems). Diversion-focused programs often emphasize providing youth who have been arrested with activities and relationships that engage or reengage them in existing systems of support that can help them build resiliency and avoid future criminal involvement. Examples include services to support high school graduation and college access, job training and career planning, substance abuse and mental health treatments, and broader youth development opportunities that promote healthy relationships and decision-making. Programs serving youth reentering communities after periods of incarceration, while frequently cover these same domains, often provide services that are more intense and that include additional areas of emphasis on creating a stable foundation for ongoing success and on compliance with terms of probation or post-release supervision. In many instances, reentry-focused programs work closely with juvenile justice professionals as part of a broader transition team.

What does the research say about mentoring for youth in reentry and diversion?

Research suggests that both natural and programmatic mentors can be effective in reducing recidivism and promoting successful transitions out of juvenile justice systems. The chapter on mentoring for juvenile offenders in the Handbook of Youth Mentoring (2nd Edition) concluded that “the findings on structured mentoring programs are promising, but not strong,” primarily due to the fact that several studies of mentoring juvenile offenders found that effects of these programs diminished over time, with few differences between mentored and non-mentored offenders a few years after participation in the program. It is worth noting that the erosion of effects is something found in studies of mentoring for many other youth groups and across program settings and is not a unique phenomenon for programs serving juvenile offenders.

Two recent OJJDP-funded research briefs explore the effectiveness of mentoring programs serving youth involved in the justice system. In Advocacy-based Mentoring Evaluation, researchers from the University of Texas at San Antonio discuss the effectiveness of Youth Advocate Program’s (YAP) advocacy-based approach to mentoring in reducing delinquency and other risk behaviors. Researchers found that:

Participants in the YAP program demonstrated self-reported improvements in connectedness to school (i.e., how positively they feel about school and teachers, and how hard they work to be successful academically and to maintain teacher relationships) as corroborated by increased academic engagement (i.e. participation and interest in school), and greater pursuit of employment from program entry to discharge. Participants reported declines in misconduct and crime engagement both across the treatment period (at discharge from the program) and 12 months post-discharge.

In Mentoring Best Practices Research: Effectiveness of Juvenile Mentoring for Youth on Parole and Probation in Ohio, researchers from the Center for Criminal Justice Research at the University of Cincinnati explore how six Ohio mentoring programs impact the rate of participant recidivism. Though researchers found these mentoring services did not have a significant impact on recidivism, the study did shed some light on which programmatic practices may lead to better outcomes. Participating programs that most aligned with evidence-based practices experienced the largest reduction in the rate of recidivism, while programs that least aligned with evidence-based practices saw an increase in the rate of participant recidivism. Furthermore, the authors suggest that programs striving to influence criminal justice outcomes “target relevant behaviors (e.g., impulsivity, negative attitudes, antisocial peers)” and “work with youth to change their antisocial thinking and behaviors and apply social learning principles to teach youth new prosocial skills.”

Most recently, the National Mentoring Resource Center’s Research Board reviewed the evidence for juvenile and young adult reentry mentoring programs specifically. That review concluded, in part, that:

While meta-analyses of the findings from evaluations of mentoring programs suggest that mentoring youth at risk for problems such as involvement in the justice system is a promising practice, few comparison group studies were found on outcomes related to mentoring at reentry. Specifically, only one published study and four unpublished studies were found of programs providing mentoring to youth during reentry, and only one published study and no unpublished studies were found on programs providing mentoring to young adults… Significant differences were found between comparison groups in two of the six studies and trends toward significant group differences were found in two additional studies; the differences observed in these four studies were consistent with positive effects of mentoring or the larger intervention of which mentoring was one component. Research addressing the remaining questions [which related to mechanisms of program effects, moderators of program effects, and program reach, implementation, and sustainability] was extremely limited and thus did not provide a sufficient basis for conclusions.

What does the NMRC offer on mentoring for youth in reentry or diversion?

Model and Population Reviews

Reviews of Specific Programs

  • KEEP SAFE is a multi-component intervention to prevent delinquency and substance abuse among girls in foster care. Read the review and the accompanying Insights for practitioners.

  • Reading for Life (RFL) is a diversion program in which juveniles ages 13-18, who have committed non-violent offenses, study works of literature and classic virtue theory in small groups, led by trained volunteer mentors. Read the review and accompanying Insights for practitioners.

  • The Adolescent Diversion Project (Michigan State University) is a strengths-based, advocacy-oriented program that diverts arrested youth from formal processing in the juvenile justice system and provides them community-based services. Read the review.

  • CASASTART is a community-based, intensive case management model that aims to prevent drug use and delinquency among high-risk adolescents, ages 11 to 13. Read the review.

  • The Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care – Adolescents Program is a behavioral treatment alternative to residential placement for adolescents who have problems with chronic antisocial behavior, emotional disturbance, and delinquency. Read the review.

  • The Gang Reduction Program (Los Angeles, California) is a comprehensive, multiyear initiative to reduce youth gang crime and violence through a combination of strategies. Read the review.

Reviews of Relevant Practices

  • Mentors working with youth who have been involved in the juvenile justice system may be involved in an advocacy role. Read the review of the program practice of supporting mentors in an advocacy role and the accompanying Insights for practitioners.

Blog Posts


Implementation Resources

  • This resource, Tools for Mentoring Adolescents, may be applicable to mentors working with juvenile justice-involved young people.
  • The Mi Hermana’s Keeper Toolkit, created by Southwest Key, offers information about culturally responsive practices for prevention programs supporting Latina youth, as well as program and system-level recommendations and action steps with resources for practitioners.

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP)’s Investments in Reentry and Diversion Mentoring

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