Peer Mentoring in the Certificate Program for Juvenile Justice Specialists and Compliance Monitors

In 2021, the Center for Coordinated Assistance to States (CCAS) worked with the State Relations and Assistance Division at the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) to provide a certificate program for new Juvenile Justice Specialists and Compliance Monitors who work at the state level. The training program introduces people to their roles and duties, and it creates a network for peers to interact with each other. A total of 53 designated state agency staff received the training. They represented 28 states, the District of Columbia, and two territories[1]. The program included 15 sessions in 2-week periods over 7 months. The CCAS team worked with OJJDP to create nearly 50 resources for the program. The resources included PowerPoint slide decks for each module, handouts, and activities and assignments. The resources helped program participants apply the concepts they learned.

Peer and mentoring word cloud

Peer mentors are a main part of the training. CCAS identified 14 experienced people who worked in their state as a Juvenile Justice Specialist, Compliance Monitor, or both. Some people served as a consultant to state agencies. All together, these people had many years of experience working with juvenile justice systems in their states and territories. They volunteered to help OJJDP build staff capacity and a network across the country by sharing their insights and experiences throughout the training. CCAS matched each peer mentor with four or five program participants. Peer mentors shared examples from the work they did in their states, held conversations in small groups where participants shared information in a safe space, and provided one-on-one time.

Participants shared the benefits they gained from interacting with their peer mentors and from the small groups.

Most of the information shared during the sessions were familiar to me, as I’ve read the [Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention] Act on many occasions, especially this year with the 3-year state planning process. The most beneficial part of the certification program for me was the peer mentorship and small group of fellow JJ [Juvenile Justice] Specialists.
— Juvenile Justice Specialist

The mentor sessions have been very successful so far in providing a safe place to ask questions and gain helpful feedback from peers. All participants seem comfortable sharing their thoughts about the training and how the content of the module impacts their role. There is good rapport among members, and each person has expressed gratitude for having a space to meet and process the information with their colleagues.
— Compliance Monitor

During the training, CCAS asked peer mentors about their experiences with the program.

  • Peer mentors said they valued the way CCAS supported them. The activities in between modules and the assignments they did provided a strong framework for mentors, and it allowed them to ask questions. The training structure kept participants on track and helped peer mentors learn what participants knew and did not know.
  • Peer mentors shared their knowledge and experience with participants in small groups and one-on-one conversations. If a trainee had a question that needed an answer from OJJDP, the peer mentor acted as a link between CCAS and OJJDP. The interactions with participants also helped peer mentors hear about the needs in the juvenile justice field to help OJJDP plan for the future.

At the end of the program, CCAS talked with two peer mentors, Ryan Shands and Meg Williams. Both have a lot of field experience. Talking with them helped CCAS better understand the benefits of peer mentorship in the certificate programs.

What do you think is the biggest benefit trainees get out of the certificate program?

Meg: The Juvenile Justice Specialist and Compliance Monitoring jobs are very important to states and territories. The jobs are very complex. New staff can get overwhelmed as they learn about the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) and how it can affect Title II funding that states receive, the main requirements of the JJDPA, grant management, and how to support their state advisory group. In the past, they learned their tasks over time, by making mistakes and learning from them. Sometimes, an expert Juvenile Justice Specialist or Compliance Monitor helped a new specialist or monitor in their job. The certificate program recognizes the importance of these positions and their duties. These programs provide immediate training and a lot of mentoring support to new Title II staff.

Ryan: I agree. We also need to note a few other things that complicate the needs of new Title II staff. First, some staff don’t have direct experience in the juvenile or criminal justice systems before they become a Juvenile Justice Specialist or Compliance Monitor in their state. Second, each state is at a different level with Title II practices. For example, some states have compliance monitoring systems and processes that have been tried and tested. New staff have a different experience with these systems and processes than staff in states who are working to improve theirs. The certificate program allows people to create and build relationships. It also gives them a safe space to ask questions in a small group. The program participants learn about the challenges that other states have and the solutions they use to manage them. Through this program, we share a lot of knowledge about the system along with the training. This helps participants better understand the purpose and scope of the Title II program.

How did serving as a peer mentor during the 7 months of the certificate program help you grow as a professional?

Ryan: Being a mentor to other compliance monitors helped me realize how much knowledge I’d gained during my years of doing this work. I learned the value of listening to others and learning about their experiences. This approach allows me to “meet people where they are” in their knowledge and skill level. I work with them, and they learn there are many different ways to be successful in their work.

Meg: Ryan is right. This work made me realize that I have knowledge and experience that I can share with others. When I was a Juvenile Justice Specialist, I worked with a group of specialists who tried to create a less formal way to mentor new specialists. But the certificate program didn’t have the training part that happened at the same time. So it was hard for mentors to keep up with their duties.

What makes a peer mentor good at their job, and what makes a peer network successful at working together?

Meg: I believe an important quality for mentors is a passion for this work. They must commit to improving the juvenile justice system in their state. They need to understand that their role in this system is very important. If they have all these things, they can their spread their passion to the new staff they mentor.

Ryan: It’s important to be a good listener and know how to build trust. Peer mentors don’t just suggest ways to create plans and handle challenges; they also share their experiences. Sometimes, peers just want to know if the approach they’re taking is adequate; they don’t want to know if the peer mentor thinks it could be done better. The systems, tools, and resources for handling challenges are different for each participating jurisdiction. The mentoring process works well when mentors openly discuss challenges, strategies, and risks. Peer mentors can guide training participants through a specific challenge or strategy, and they can recommend dealing with a problem based on their own experiences.

We received positive feedback from program participants and peer mentors. They said peer mentoring is a strong part of the certificate program, and they said CCAS should keep it as part of the program when they give training sessions to OJJDP. We also heard that staff who work for a designated state agency (DSA) need ongoing support and regular communication to do their work for CCAS.

Ryan: Getting the training one time is not enough. People who received the training must know how to put their expectations in writing for their DSA and state advisory group leaders. DSA staff get disappointed if training is delivered and then postponed while it’s being delivered.

Meg: States may hire DSA staff during the year. Having training months or a year later defeats states’ efforts to properly manage their Title II awards and meet the requirements of the [JJDPA]. New staff should start training and have a mentor within 1 month, if possible. DSAs should contact the CCAS when they expect to hire a new staff member. This can help the CCAS plan to meet their needs. Also, it can help the CCAS put new staff members in one group so they can receive training and mentoring together.

1 A total of 41 staff participated in the Program for Juvenile Justice Specialists, 45 participated in the Program for Compliance Monitors, and 19 participated in both programs. Participants were a mix of current Juvenile Justice Specialists and Compliance Monitors, people serving in a temporary role, and other staff from designated agencies who wanted to learn more about the role of the Juvenile Justice Specialists and Compliance Monitors and how they could support them.