Available data shows the impact of mentoring on youth at high risk for violence may be limited, but advocates said the overall benefits of mentoring suggest it is a worthwhile undertaking nonetheless.
During Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s State of the City address, delivered on March 9, the mayor announced “the start of an intense focus on our African American young men” in an effort to reduce the number of African-American homicides in Baltimore City, which totaled 189 in 2014.
As part of this effort, the city will begin working to recruit men to serve as mentors, tutors, and job training coaches in order to connect them with existing organizations in need of volunteers.
In 2014, 15 juveniles died in homicides in Baltimore, according to data released by the Baltimore Police Department. Even if all 15 youths were African American, they would make up just 7.9 percent of the 189 total homicides. That fact suggests that an intense focus on young men, even if entirely successful, would not result in substantial reductions in African-American homicides overall. However, given the age of the victims, few would argue with even nominal reductions in those numbers.
Available data on the impact of mentoring on youth violence is limited. A 2013 report by the University of Chicago Crime Lab studied a sports-based after-school mentoring initiative known as BAM, or Becoming a Man, that was combined with in-school cognitive behavioral therapy program. The program lasted one year and involved 2,740 randomly assigned boys from disadvantaged Chicago neighborhoods.
The study found a 44 percent reduction in violent crime arrests among participants compared to their nonparticipating counterparts, as well as a 36 percent decline in non violent-crime arrests. But these reductions did not last beyond the program year, and the study suggests the reductions likely had more to do with the therapy than the mentoring.
However, the study did find that the program produced other important benefits.
“While the crime impacts do not persist (beyond the program year), impacts on schooling outcomes do, with gains that we estimate could translate into higher graduation rates of 3 to 10 percentage points,” the study’s authors wrote.
In another study conducted in Chicago, youths arriving at an emergency room with assault injuries were recruited and paired with a mentor with whom they would meet six or more times over a two- to six-month period.
For those participants with high participation, the study found “significant decreases in misdemeanor behavior and physical aggression,” and a follow-up assessment found “additional reductions for the intervention group in reports of fighting and subsequent fight-related injuries.”
That program targeted youth already involved in violence, and thus at higher risk for violence, making it a different model than the one currently proposed in Baltimore. However, Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen has said that the city seeks to identify risk factors for youth homicides, such as a previous non-fatal shooting, in order to develop more effective interventions to be implemented in the near future.
Until then, the sort of mentoring initiatives being promoted by the city may not be the most effective at reducing violence, since they are not yet targeted specifically towards youth who have shown a propensity towards violent behavior.
The BAM study did not find lasting impacts on violence, but did find lasting impacts in school related outcomes, which are associated with more traditional mentoring models. They can also have an indirect result on reducing violence; for example, improved graduation rates may help produce more economically viable adults.
According to Michelle Lawrence, director of marketing and communications for Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Chesapeake, more than 80 percent of children who receive just one year of mentoring in their programs report having better relationships, improved school performance, improved decision-making, greater confidence, and greater optimism about the future.
Academic achievement and good relationships are protective factors against violence according to the National Mentoring Partnership, a mentoring advocacy organization. In other words, while the impact of mentoring on youths already at high risk for violence may be limited, mentoring may play an important role in reducing risk factors for violent or aggressive behaviors. An expansion of mentoring in Baltimore City could help reduce the number of youths at risk for violence in the first place, which could eventually reduce overall violence.
Ultimately, more data is needed. As the city begins implementing its efforts on reducing violence, both the mayor and Wen have said that the city will collect data on its efforts in order to determine which initiatives are producing the best outcomes.