(Peer) Mentoring: has its time arrived?

Mentoring of course is not a new idea even if this nomenclature has been coined more recently. I go back to 1975 when I first started as a probation volunteer and befriended young clients on behalf of the probation officer. The role of ‘advice, assist and befriend’ is at the heart of the traditions of the probation service and until relatively recently probation volunteers were a significant part of the supervision armoury. In the late 70s I initiated a programme funded through the Manpower Services Commission called ‘Octopus’. This meant we employed two ex-offenders as assistant supervisors in a voluntary day/drop-in centre. It was a challenging experiment not only for the individuals concerned but the probation officers too who, though used to finding clients employment elsewhere, were somewhat disconcerted to find that that employment was in their own agency. Indeed to some officers attending a case conference for their client when the supervisors were present was often a bridge too far.

So you could say I am institutionally committed to both the use of mentors and peer mentors to support those in trouble with the criminal justice system. Since the 1970s we have seen the development of new career projects, befriending schemes, volunteering, peer support, buddy programmes, peer advisors, prison visitors, listening schemes, carers, resettlement and recovery champions and more recently peer mentors. I became involved in a peer research and peer support programme run through Sova but involving a range of statutory and non-statutory agencies. This took place from 2002 to 2007 and was funded through ESF Equal initiative funding and was called ‘Women into Work’. We learnt a lot about both peer research and peer support for women offenders. In the projects we evaluated we saw great potential for the use of peer support though we also recognised that there were potential difficulties and hurdles to overcome. A toolkit was prepared to support the further development of schemes. (http://www.shu.ac.uk/research/hccj/publications_wiwr01.html) We were fortunate to examine buddy schemes in other parts of Europe particularly in Sweden. There, former drug addicts became buddies to serious drug offenders in prison before release and in the community afterwards. The fact that these ex-offenders could gain entry into the prison to begin this work was due to its royal endorsement from the King And Queen of Sweden.

Mentoring and peer mentoring has grown apace in the last 10 years with organisations such as Sova, Catch-22, St Giles Trust, Nacro and many others pioneering projects particularly around the resettlement agenda. Probation trusts have sponsored and developed peer support programmes either in concert with voluntary agencies or on their own initiative. The penal lobby has been enhanced by the presence of such reformed offender groups as Unlock and User Voice who have promoted peer mentoring within their campaigning. It is hardly surprising therefore that the Justice Minister has shown his interest and support in developing peer mentoring. However he certainly has not done this in the most sensitive or considered way. Referring to ‘old lags’ meeting released prisoners at the gate is hardly the best way to promote it.

Certainly projects mentioned above have shown they can offer emotional, literacy, housing, drug, and employment support and also offer advice and signposting to other services. Mentoring has enabled engagement of hard to reach groups and certainly makes a distinctive contribution to case management. It is evident in projects that they are a key resource particularly in the first 48 hours following release and aiding continuity of care as demonstrated in Integrated Offender Management (IOM) schemes.

There is an interesting debate within the mentoring field as to whether it is only peer mentors that should be promoted rather than the broader use of volunteers. Peer mentors offer genuine empathy, enhance rapport and bonding with mentees, develop positive role models, increase the potential to succeed with personal and emotional issues, enhance the credibility of the service and adopt a non-judgemental approach. However there is a role for the traditional volunteer who offers help and support whether motivated through a mixture of do- gooding, religious motivation, career enhancement or some version of philanthropy motivated by the big society or similar slogan. But it is a different resource and cannot provide the unique connection which a peer can bring.

The evidence of effectiveness remains however somewhat patchy. It is the least developed of criminal justice interventions despite pockets of good practice both in theoretical understanding and in research. Strengths identified through research include engagement, positive role model, capacity to develop prosocial communities. But research also suggests potential weaknesses including the small pool of volunteers available, high turnover, issues of competence, maintaining boundaries, and providing the support needs of the peer mentors themselves. (Fletcher and Batty, 2012. http://www.shu.ac.uk/research/cresr/sites/shu.ac.uk/files/offender-peer-interventions.pdf) It can be argued from the evidence base so far that being a service user may be a necessary condition for mentoring but not sufficient. Mentors need training, an orientation towards help, funding streams, payment mechanisms and management support.

The Justice Minister intends that all offenders released from prison, particularly non-statutory offenders, will receive a peer mentor. There is little doubt that the evidence would suggest that they will enhance the service to be offered. However caution needs to be expressed before we can achieve the ministers’ vision. It is clear that whilst there are some capable peer mentors in the system, many reformed offenders will not be suitable to undertake the role and further to that the numbers available within the system mean that simply to deal with short sentence prisoners you are looking at providing services to over 45,000 released prisoners. There seems to be huge doubt that sufficiently trained mentors could be found.

There is no doubt that leaning on big society rhetoric the intention would be for peer mentors to be volunteers. This is not only unrealistic but also deeply unfair. Reformed offenders are struggling to survive and build networks and resettle in their local communities and to expect the altruism implied by volunteering may not be at the top of their agenda. Research also is sceptical that peer mentoring can offer a complete service as sufficient supervisory support. Professionals providing much-needed brokerage into welfare systems, accredited programmes, work schemes etc must be complimentary to the role that a mentor can play. By definition a mentor is not a supervisor and therefore it would be inappropriate to give them a statutory role in terms of compliance and public protection. Inevitably the turnover will be high as the difficulties in sustaining a change of identity puts huge pressure on peer mentors as they adjust to their new role and status in society. There remains too a residual resistance from professional staff to work with mentors and this has sometimes been evident in research projects that I have been involved in. Also even if the mentors were volunteers they will need and deserve high levels of management support to survive as they pursue this new and challenging career option.

I am totally in favour of the use of both mentors and peer mentors in the criminal justice system. I think they have a valuable role to play which compliments and enhances the case management undertaken by the public services. There is a real danger however that in a rush to make such assistance available across the whole of the criminal justice system within a short period of time it will lose the careful and incremental way in which peer mentoring systems have been nurtured so far. I think we must be very careful not to make the system untenable before it has had a reasonable chance to succeed. Whilst Grayling has hit upon a germ of an idea in executing that thought he is in real danger of damaging its very prospect of success.

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