Mentors and role models for gang-involved youth

Crime “mentors

Criminal “mentors” have been found to influence many young people during their early involvement in crime. These “mentors” can be peers, but they are typically older people who are now recognised as exploiting young people, often for financial gain through crime (Morselli, Tremblay & McCarthy, 2006). It is crucial, therefore, when attempting to mentor a young person away from criminal activities and gang involvement to find an appropriate mentor and role model. Someone who can counteract the influence of a deviant adult and who can also show the young person an alternative lifestyle and career. 

It is now recognised that adult criminals groom young people into criminal exploitation (Moyle, 2019) using many of the same techniques as those who sexually exploit children (Ashton & Bussu, forthcoming).    

Criminal Exploitation of Children and Young People, Based on a CSE model

The role of pro-social and community mentors in youth offending interventions

Although there are many examples of programmes that include the prosocial and community mentoring of young people who are either criminally and/or gang involved, very few have been rigorously evaluated. The most recent evaluation (University of Cincinnati) found that juveniles who were under parole or probation supervision did not demonstrate a statistically significant reduction in their offending simply because they were allocated a mentor. The authors concluded that any affective intervention required the implementation of evidence-based practice. Thus, allocating a mentor is simply not enough to impact on a young person’s offending behaviours. Duriez and colleagues (2017) highlighted three key principles for effective mentoring programmes: Risk, Need and Responsivity (Bonta & Andrews, 2017): 

  1. Higher risk youth require more intensive interventions
  2. Interventions should focus on key social, psychological, attitudinal and behavioural risks
  3. All interventions should include cognitive behavioural elements to respond to individuals and their behaviour

Some of the most successful mentoring relationships for gang involved youth that I have encountered involve either successful professionals or community members who have themselves never been involved with crime. Importantly, they understand how they can best support their mentee and are a constant point of contact.  

Community focus

Men at Work exhibit at the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, Chicago

It was precisely this comprehensive approach that I found when I visited the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation in Chicago’s South as part of my Churchill Fellowship. The PBMR use trauma informed care in addition to educational cultural programmes to support all members of their community, including young men who have been affected by gangs. They also support people through work development programmes, offering them sustainable change and a future. 

During my visit, I was struck by a very simple but effective exhibition entitled “Men at Work”, which featured photographs and the stories of men from the local community. Each man spoke about their work and why it was important to them. Having a reminder, in a neighbourhood where crime is high and for some groups has become normalised is a constructive way of showing an alternative. All of the men featured were from the local area, for those who had themselves been involved in crime (and it was by no means all of the men featured) they had successfully turned their lives around and were happy with their pathways. For young people who attend the Ministry to learn carpentry or practice their art skills, the permanence of an exhibition means that they can read the stories and engage with the content in their own time. This method seems to be a cost effective and is a simple way to begin to offer an alternative narrative for young people from their own communities. For some of the most criminally affected young people, the display may also be the first time that they encounter the stories of adults who are not themselves criminally involved. It is precisely this kind of holistic approach that is referenced in academic studies and evaluations. As previously reported in an early post, the PBMR Center that I visited, consisted of a series of gardens, buildings and training facilities. The “Men at Work” exhibition was another effective point for reflection.        


Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation 

Sister Donna Liette

Father Denny Kinderman

Karlyn Boens



Ashton, S-A. & Bussu, A. (forthcoming). Differentiating between youth and adult-involved gangs.

Bonta, J. & Andrews, D. A. (2017). The Psychology of Criminal Conduct. 6th Edition. New York, NY: Routledge.

Duriez, S. A., Sullivan, C., Sullivan, C. J., Manchak, S. M., Latessa, E. J., University of Cincinnati, … & United States of America. (2017). Mentoring Best Practices Research: Effectiveness of Juvenile Mentoring Programs on Recidivism. Cincinnati: University of Cincinnati1462.

Morselli, C., Tremblay, P., & McCarthy, B. (2006). Mentors and criminal achievement. Criminology44(1), 17-43.

Moyle, L. (2019). Situating Vulnerability and Exploitation in Street-Level Drug Markets: Cuckooing, Commuting, and the “County Lines” Drug Supply Model. Journal of Drug Issues49(4), 739-755.

University of Cincinnati, School of Criminal Justice, & United States of America. (2017). Mentoring Best Practices Research: Effectiveness of Juvenile Mentoring for Youth on Parole and Probation in Ohio.

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