Toolkit on Effective Mentoring for Youth
Facing Barriers to Success

Best practices and resources to build, strengthen, evaluate and sustain effective mentoring programs for youth considered at high-risk of under education, unemployment, homelessness, criminalization, and other negative outcomes.

Youth Involved in the Criminal Justice System

“He actually cared for me, even when I was away [incarcerated] he was the only one that visited me” (Youth Arts Action Group Youth Consultation)


Key Lessons

  • Program development for mentoring youth in conflict with the law should involve:
    • Partnering with criminal justice and diversion programs to recruit mentees and support them;
    • Having practices in place to ensure voluntary participation of mentees;
    • Focussing on emotional support to enhance outcomes; and
    • Creating policies and procedures to manage match interruptions and closures that may result from changes in custody / re-arrest / re-incarceration.14, 16
  • Mentee training should be provided to help participants build connections with their mentors, understand the program guidelines, and the roles and limitations of the mentors.16
  • Mentors will require specific training as well to help them understand the criminal justice system, handle difficult behaviours, build awareness of services in the community, deal with different challenges the mentees may face (including learning disabilities, mental health issues, etc.).9, 16, 17

Existing Toolkits & Resources

The Mentoring Toolkit: Resources for Developing Programs for Incarcerated Youth:


Effective Mentoring for Youth Involved in the Criminal Justice System


Standards & Good Practices

(linked to positive outcomes for participants)

Other Pertinent Info

(from other studies & reports)

Program Planning

When planning a mentoring program for youth in conflict with the law, community partnerships should be developed to help create responsive programming and to recruit participants. One suggestion is to establish a committee including community partners and parents.9, 16

Partnering with community diversion programs, probation officers, and youth court judges can help to recruit mentees with criminal justice involvement and support them throughout the mentoring process. Mentoring programs that are embedded into other interventions or partnered with youth courts are recommended because this model streamlines the mentee referral process and the program has an easier time maintaining connection with the youth.6, 14, 15, 16

If working with other agencies, there should be a Memorandum of Understanding completed before the program begins to outline roles and expectations; for how to write MOUs, see Referring youth in juvenile justice settings to mentoring programs.14

Programs that operate in a secure facility must be designed in accordance with the facility rules and regulations and also consider safety concerns; mentoring staff should be trained on strategies and protocols for working with youth in the facility by staff at the facility.14, 16

When emotional support was central to the mentoring program design and mentors participated for professional development, there were enhanced outcomes for youth in conflict with the law.1, 3

Mentoring programs should have at least one full-time staff member who can follow-up regularly with participants.16

Programs should evaluate not only mentee recidivism rates, but also other changes in the mentee, such as:

  • Satisfaction of mentors and mentees
  • Academic and behavioural successes
  • Mentor and mentee retention
  • Quantity and quality of mentoring sessions16
A meta-analysis examining effects of mentoring programs for youth with complex needs, found mentoring had a statistically significant reduction in delinquency and associated behaviours: aggression, drug use, and academic performance.3

Mentoring can help youth in court-ordered programs comply with program activities.13

Garringer and colleagues caution against using group mentoring for youth that have engaged in “aggressive, delinquent, sexually risky, or substance abuse behaviours” because the group format may lead to reinforcing negative behaviours (p. 18). Similarly, individualized mentoring was found to result in longer matches, although this approach was not significantly correlated with fulfilling all match commitments.15, 17

Natural mentoring may be more successful in supporting transition out of custody and reducing recidivism than other mentoring models.6

Mentoring is more successful for youth involved with the criminal justice system when combined with other interventions.15

For mentoring program development resources see The mentoring toolkit: Resources for developing programs for incarcerated youth.16

Program Implementation

Some key tips for implementing mentoring for youth in conflict with the law are:

  • Program coordinators should have contact with the youth participants’ Probation Officers in order to provide updates and collaborate to help the youth avoid “falling through the cracks”.
  • Providing meaningful activities, that engage mentees in their community and provide opportunities to bond with their mentors and peers.
  • Match meetings should take place in public spaces in order to help the mentors feel at ease when working with youth who have had contact with the criminal justice system.
  • Individual support is important for the mentees and thus one-on-one components should be include in any program design.
  • There are key skills for mentees who have been involved with the criminal justice system: life skills (e.g., finding employment or housing), critical thinking, and communication and healthy relationships.
  • The more meetings that a pair has the greater likelihood that the mentee will achieve their goals.
  • When done safely, social media can be used to keep in touch with youth as much as possible.9, 11, 14, 15, 17

Male mentors are harder to recruit and therefore if same-gender matching is the goal of the program, small group mentoring can be employed as an interim solution to finding an appropriate mentor for a male-identified mentee.14

Many positive outcomes of mentoring for youth in conflict with the law have been found:

  • Mentoring has been found to have many of the same positive outcomes as group counselling, including social, educational, and employment skills.
  • Mentoring has been shown to reduce recidivism rates by over 20%.
  • One-on-one mentoring incorporated into release programs for youth exiting custody can have a significant return on investment: “for a one-time investment of $500,000 to fund the program, the state may realize a savings of over $3.2 million” due to the large decrease in re-incarceration of participants (p. 11).
  • Inter-agency coordinated programs are most likely to provide a return on investment for youth in conflict with the law.
  • Mentoring is often used to support youth post-custody to assist with re-engaging in the community and monitoring progress; these interventions help ensure a positive transition back to the community, which reduces the likelihood that the young person will return to custody.1, 4, 9, 13, 14, 17

However, the findings on the impact of mentoring on youth recidivism rates are complex. When following up with youth who had received mentoring after 12 months, there was a larger reduction in recidivism than for those who did not receive mentoring. Longer-term follow-ups yielded less promising results; reductions in recidivism were not much different than for those who did not receive mentoring. Mentoring for youth in conflict with the law may also be less effective with “chronic offenders”.1, 6, 15

Mentee Referral, Selection & Training

Probation officers can make mentoring a court ordered program, which would reduce the challenges associated with having parental support of the program. Additionally, referral of youth who are currently in secure custody to mentoring programs can be done through youth’s treatment team or by self-referral.14

When selecting mentees, the length of custody/detention and probation should be considered because if the relationship will be cut short, there could be greater harm done to the young person. Ideally, mentoring relationships should last at least one year.

Youth should also not be excluded based on involvement with certain illegal activities.14, 16

It is important to have measures in place to ensure youth in conflict with the law are voluntarily participating in the mentoring program.14, 16

Program staff should screen mentees for mental health issues and assess the home life of the young person prior to involvement with the criminal justice system so the mentoring intervention can be designed to best support the unique assets and challenges of each mentee.16

Youth in conflict with the law may have difficulty being emotionally available, which can limit their ability to connect with their mentor.

Mentee training should take place to help individuals understand the parameters of the program and consequently also reduce mentee attrition.

Mentee training should include:

  • Understanding mentoring and the roles of individuals involved;
  • Clarifying expectations and responsibilities for the relationships;
  • Explaining boundaries of the relationships (including limits to confidentiality);
  • Learning how to recognize and respond to inappropriate mentor actions;
  • Learning how to connect with program staff and request support; and
  • Developing and practicing skills for building healthy relationships.16


Mentor Recruitment, Screening & Selection

Mentors should always be required to complete a background check.14 University and college mentors should be recruited with caution for youth who are highly transient and most vulnerable because they are less likely to be able to provide a sufficiently long and consistent match.2

Mentor Training

Mentor training should include:

  • Understanding the youth criminal justice system;
  • Working with the unique needs of youth who have been in conflict with the law;
  • How to handle difficult behaviours of the mentees, such as testing boundaries, disrespect, and lack of cooperation;
  • Learning about services available in the community to refer their mentee when a specific issue arises; and
  • Understanding of learning disabilities, mental health issues, cultural issues and strategies to support youth dealing with these issues.

These skills can largely reduce mentor attrition.9, 16, 17

Mentor training should take place on an ongoing basis and at least once a month.16

Matching Process

For matching, there should be consideration to the following factors:

  • The matching process should be well thought out. One suggestion is to begin with small group activities, so mentors and mentees can get to know one another and then identify natural mentoring pairs from there.
  • Young women who have been in conflict with the law are more likely to have had experiences of sexual violence and thus same gender matching is important.
  • Matching mentees with mentors of the same cultural background and gender was found to have greater positive effects than cross-cultural and cross-gender matching.
  • Priority should be given to mentee interests and in what characteristics they would like in a mentor.9, 16, 17

Youth are more likely to be matched successfully if they are placed in the program with the shortest waiting list.14

Mentoring relationships should begin while the mentees are still in custody in order to ensure longevity after release and best support the youth as they return to the community.16

Youth may not be matched because they have engaged in very serious behaviours that programs have prohibited, an appropriate mentor cannot be found due to small numbers of mentors, and lack of family support.14

Mentoring Relationship Development

At the beginning of the mentoring relationship activities should be structured by the program to help the match build a connection.16

Mentors and mentees should set goals early on in the relationship, especially if the mentee will be exiting custody soon. The Washington Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration (JRA) program advocates that once mentees set their goals, mentors should set goals as well so the pair can work on their goals together and hold one another accountable.16

Regular contact with mentees is important as youth in conflict with the law are often transient and difficult to connect with regularly.14

Match Supervision, Support & Retention

Expectations of mentors and mentees about the type of relationship desired should be established prior to matching to avoid setting the pair up for failure.15

Staff should keep in regular contact with mentees, their family members, and mentors to assess progress and support the mentors in responding to any issues or conflicts. If youth will be released from custody, programs should be in touch with mentees 24 hours after to provide support.14, 16

Maintaining a mentoring relationship once a young person has been released from detention/custody can be difficult as some facilities are not in the young person’s community.14


Parent/ Caregiver/ Family Involvement

Program coordinators should connect with parents and caregivers regularly to address issues.12

Mentors should also actively build relationships with family members and friends to help ensure the mentee has support for being involved in the program.15

Match Closure & Re-Matching

There should be policies and procedures established to deal with match interruption or unexpected closures due to mentee re-arrest/re-incarceration.14


Children of Prisoners

Considerations when planning mentoring, should include:

  • Engaging parents, including the parent in prison, from the initial stages and provide ongoing communication about the child’s progress.
  • Altering the screening process to ensure mentors have the unique skills needed to support the mentee.
  • Determining the age of the mentee when their parent was imprisoned in order to assess any developmental issues.
  • How to end the relationships because mentees may be particularly vulnerable to losing an adult role model.5, 7

Mentee training for children of prisoners should include:

  • How to communicate thoughts and feelings;
  • Ideas for how to build a relationship with the mentor;
  • Establish guidelines about acceptable behaviour; and
  • How to ask the mentor for help when needed.5

Mentor training for working with children of prisoners should include:

  • Defining expectations for the match early on about length of the mentoring relationship, meeting activities/ frequency, and possible outcomes;
  • Understanding that the children may have difficulty trusting others, which can make building the relationship more difficult;
  • Information about the unique strengths and needs of children of prisoners;
  • Explain the context in which the children live and how the parent incarceration can lead to stigma and shame and their impacts on the development of the child;
  • Strategies to building healthy relationships;
  • Communication styles, including how to approach a mentee’s request to visit their parent in prison;
  • How to support the child in responding to stress related to having a parent in prison, and coping with the situation parent leaves prison;
  • Exploring personal values and beliefs; and
  • Establishing boundaries with the child and their family.2, 5, 7

How mentors can foster a positive relationship with their mentees:

  • “Be consistent, patient, and flexible”
  • Be realistic about possible outcomes
  • Have high expectations of the mentee and support them in meeting those expectations. Hold them accountable when they do not meet the expectations
  • Utilize program staff as a resource when experiencing challenges
  • “Honour their commitment to the child and the relationship” (p. 24)5
Children of incarcerated parents have been found to have certain negative outcomes, including being seven times more likely to be involved with the criminal justice system and increased likelihood of attachment issues.5, 16

Overall, the results of mentoring for children of incarcerated parents are not clear. Research shows that mentoring relationships for children of prisoners that last longer than a year are very positive: 93% had increased confidence, about 60% had increased “sense of future”, and over half had better academic outcomes and improved behaviour at school. Relationships that lasted less than 6 months were found to have no significant effect.5, 7





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  2. MENTOR. (2015). Elements of effective practice for mentoring, 4th ed. Retrieved from content/uploads/2015/09/Final_Elements_Publication_Fourth.pdf
  3. Tolan, P. H., Henry, D. B., Schoeny, M. S., Lovegrove, P., & Nichols, E. (2014). Mentoring programs to affect delinquency and associated outcomes of youth at risk: A comprehensive meta-analytic review. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 10(2), 179-206.
  4. Zagar, R. J., Grove, W. M., & Busch, K. G. (2013). Delinquency best treatments: How to divert youths form violence while saving lives and detention costs. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 31(3), 381-396.
  5. Bilchik, S. (2007). Mentoring: A promising intervention for children of prisoners. Research in Action: Youth Mentoring, (10). Retrieved from
  6. Chan, W. Y., & Henry, D. B. (2013). Juvenile offenders. In DuBois, D. L., & Karcher, M. J. (Eds.), Handbook of Youth Mentoring (pp. 315-325). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
  7. Eddy, J. M., Cearley, J., Bergen, J, & Stern-Carusone, J. (2013). Children of incarcerated parents. In DuBois, D. L., & Karcher, M. J. (Eds.), Handbook of Youth Mentoring (pp. 369-383). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
  8. Tolan, P., Henry, D., Schoeny, M., & Bass, A. (2008). Mentoring interventions to affect juvenile delinquency. Campbell Systematic Reviews, 16(10).
  9. Waller, K. S., Houchins, D. E., & Nomvete, P. T. (2010). Establishing a school-based mentoring program for youth who are transitioning from a secure facility. Beyond Behavior, 19(3), 30-35.
  10. White, H. (2014). The effectiveness of youth mentoring in a criminal justice context. Internet Journal of Criminology. Retrieved from
  11. Cawood, N. D., & Wood, J. M. (2014). Group mentoring: The experience of adolescent mentees on probation. Social Work with Groups, 37(3), 213-229.
  12. Grossman, J. B., & Garry, E. M. (1997). Mentoring – A proven delinquency prevention strategy. Juvenile Justice Bulletin, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Retrieved from
  13. Gur, M., & Miller, L. (2004). Mentoring improves acceptance of a community intervention for court-referred male persons in need of supervision (PINS). Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 21(6), 573-591.
  14. Miller, J. M., Miller, H. V., Barnes, J. C., Clark, P. A., Jones, M. A., Quiros, R. J., & Peterson, S. (2012a). Referring youth in juvenile justice settings to mentoring programs: Effective strategies and practices to improving the mentoring experience for at-risk and high-risk youth. A resource compendium. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Retrieved from
  15. Miller, J. M., Miller, H. V., Barnes, J. C., Clark, P. A., Jones, M. A., Quiros, R. J., & Peterson, S. (2012b). Researching the referral stage of youth mentoring in six juvenile justice settings. An exploratory analysis. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Retrieved from
Funding provided by the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services