Where mistrust between communities and law enforcement runs high, can people with criminal histories bridge the gap?
One afternoon in October, Abdul Malik was sitting just inside the entrance of a New York City Probation Department building in the South Bronx when he recognized a young man coming in and beckoned him over.
Like many people passing through the building, the teen had been arrested and sentenced to probation and had come for a mandatory check-in with his probation officer. But he greeted Malik warmly and launched into an enthusiastic description of his new carpentry job. Malik, through his connections to local businesses in need of laborers, had set it up for him.
Malik is employed by the Department of Probation; he wore a navy-blue hoodie with “D.O.P.” printed on the front and a badge emblazoned on one arm. But while the officers there are responsible for monitoring whether clients are complying with their terms of probation and holding them accountable if they are not, Malik’s job is to build trust and offer support, with the goal of steering them away from crime.
He is what’s known as a credible messenger—someone with personal experience of the criminal-justice system, typically their own criminal record, who now has unique legitimacy to help others in a similar position. (His official title is community associate.) The probationers passing through aren’t required to meet with him, which he says makes the relationships more organic and authentic than those they are compelled to have with their officers. Rather than supplant probation, he supplements it, serving the youth as an advocate who is in a better position to understand where they are coming from.
Nearly every day, he spends time in a community space at the front of the building, talking to any young person who might be interested in a sympathetic ear, a word of advice, or more concrete assistance—for example, with a job hunt. Kids just beginning probation are often frustrated, he said, so he lets them vent, sometimes sitting in on meetings with their assigned officers to ease the early interactions. His phone is constantly ringing, too—one youth requesting a reference letter, another seeking advice about how to conduct himself in court. Although he routinely coordinates with the probation officers, he uses his discretion about what information to pass along, and he is expected to report only behavior that puts the young person or the public at risk.
Malik never thought he’d work for a law-enforcement agency. “If you had asked me that 10 years ago,” he told me, “I would have probably taken it as an insult.” His first time in this building was as a condition of his own probation, after a conviction for selling drugs, and he understands why a young person might turn to crime to make ends meet or be seduced by the power of wielding a gun. But like many people with criminal convictions in their teens or early twenties, he had aged out of that pattern of behavior. Eventually he had gotten married and become motivated to do more for his community.
The U.S. criminal-justice system has traditionally made a stark distinction between law enforcers and law breakers, with many agencies barring people with certain criminal histories from roles supervising youth, or from employment altogether. Many communities, meanwhile, are deeply mistrustful of a criminal-justice system that seems able only to surveil and to punish, never to help. But Malik is part of a quiet movement under way nationwide that aims to bridge that divide, as cities around the country hire credible messengers to build lasting relationships with young people and help them make positive life decisions.
Specifics vary. Malik works out of a probation-department building, but peers in other cities work out of juvenile-detention facilities, schools, or even libraries. Governments may hire them directly, but in most cases they contract with community-based organizations to employ them, sidestepping civil-service rules that set rigid hours or map pay scales to traditional job descriptions—policies that are inapt for this irregular workforce.
The credible-messenger movement comes as juvenile-justice systems are locking up fewer kids in favor of supporting them in their own neighborhoods, a responsibility that law-enforcement officers are ill-suited to fulfill. Now, credible messengers, working alongside the same police and probation officers who might once have arrested or supervised them, are beginning to assert a subtle influence over a system that once shunned them.
The term credible messenger is often attributed to Eddie Ellis, a former Black Panther. As a New York State prisoner in the 1970s and ’80s, he observed how people returning from prison often provided informal leadership in their home neighborhoods, and he began to advocate tapping them to perform community service related to housing, education, and crime prevention as a condition of parole. A radical idea at the time, it was met with little support. In 2000, an epidemiologist named Gary Slutkin founded the Chicago-based nonprofit Cure Violence, which hired knowledgeable community members, sometimes with criminal records or gang experience, to intervene in local conflicts and mediate peaceful resolutions through dialogue with the involved parties. But these so-called violence interrupters deliberately operate apart from police, so as not to be tarred by association with mistrusted criminal-justice authorities.
In 2012, New York City became one of the first cities to weave credible messengers into the fabric of government itself, under a new probation commissioner, Vincent Schiraldi, who wanted to put less emphasis on enforcement and more on connecting supervisees to social services. Paul Richards, who has been working in the department since 1994, said the old ethos was generally punitive rather than supportive: Officers monitored a set of court-issued conditions, and if supervisees broke any of them, they were jailed. “It was a cycle: Come in the front door, leave out the back, just to see them come through the front,” Richards said. “It just did not work.”
Schiraldi recruited David Muhammad, who had previously directed an Oakland nonprofit that employed credible messengers as mentors, and tasked him with developing a similar program for New York. They decided to focus on probationers aged 16 to 24, who had a particularly high likelihood of new felony arrests but might be receptive to mentoring.
Under the program, called Arches, credible messengers lead twice-weekly group sessions that give kids a chance to open up about challenges—what Malik calls “grown-man talk.” In a recent meeting in the Bronx, a quiet-spoken young man talked about grappling with the death of his mom, but attendees often raise more commonplace difficulties, such as the self-doubt that’s familiar to any teenager or the stresses of being a young parent. Using a curriculum based on cognitive-behavioral therapy, both in the group sessions and in one-on-one counseling, the mentors prompt their charges to assess their own decision-making processes and improve them. Because Arches is overseen by the probation department, mentors are also well positioned to guide their supervisees to other government programs like high-school-equivalency classes and job training.
Rubén Austria, who helped to recruit and train credible messengers for Arches in his role heading the nonprofit Community Connections for Youth, said that critics objected to the program’s premise early on. “Everyone said you can’t have mentors with felony convictions,” he said. Such taboos remain widespread: The Boys & Girls Clubs of America still bars people with any of an extensive set of convictions from working or volunteering as mentors. (“The number one priority of Boys & Girls Clubs of America is the safety of children and teens,” a spokeswoman said.)
But at a time when people with experience of the criminal-justice system were playing an increasingly prominent role in public discussion about how it should be reformed, the New York program resonated with the city’s nonprofits and found acceptance among its political leaders, including then Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose personal charity helped fund it. Most importantly, supervised youth embraced it. “They actually went to the program, which is half the battle with young people,” Schiraldi wrote in an email.
That’s important, because a large body of research shows that a strong relationship with a mentor can benefit a young person’s social and emotional development in numerous ways, including improving their relationships with parents and peers, helping them better regulate their behaviors, and assisting them in forming their own identities. But young people in difficult circumstances, like those living with anxiety or depression, or with unstable families, are most likely to break off a mentoring relationship and drop out, potentially resulting in more harm than good. Many youth sentenced to probation belong to this group.
An independent study of Arches in 2018 offered promising, if preliminary, evidence that the approach was working. The program’s participants were approximately half as likely to be convicted of a felony in the two years that followed as similar people on probation who did not participate in the program (though the groups had similar arrest rates). Patrick Tolan, a professor at the University of Virginia and an expert on youth development, wrote in an email that outperforming traditional probation programs “is not a high benchmark to meet,” but that the evaluation suggests that Arches is “a good and useful program.” (Tolan was not involved in the study.)
Arches has been part of a broader cultural transformation within New York City’s probation department. According to a spokeswoman, over the last decade the department has cut the share of clients charged with violating their probation by about two-thirds and nearly eliminated charges for purely “technical violations”—failure to comply with the terms of probation, but with no new arrest—all with no increase in probationers’ recidivism.
Those involved in developing Arches have become evangelists of the credible-messenger approach. There is no authoritative count of jurisdictions that have adopted it, but Austria, of Community Connections for Youth, now helps run the Credible Messenger Justice Center (a partnership between his organization, the City University of New York, and the probation department) and has hosted conferences and trainings with more than a dozen cities and counties.
After consulting with the center, King County, Washington, rolled out a program similar to New York’s in 2018. The same year, San Diego contracted a team of eight mentors to work with delinquent youth, and New York State allocated $9 million for a Community Credible Messengers Initiative across four regions. And in Atlanta, the U.S. Attorney’s Office obtained federal funding to bring credible messengers into the Metro Reentry Facility, where they mentor people convicted of gun or gang offenses as they complete their sentences; the first class, of 22 participants, graduated in January 2019.
At a recent Credible Messenger Justice Center training in October 2019, delegations arrived from as far away as Sacramento; each included a mix of government officials and self-described credible messengers. Over two days, they visited New York City’s probation-department facilities, sat in on group mentoring sessions, and sketched out plans for programs of their own.
Mark Mertens, an attendee who leads the Division of Youth & Family Services in Milwaukee County, said it’s easier to follow in the footsteps of a codified program like Arches. It also helps that the workforce is increasingly credentialed, as would-be credible messengers get trained in motivational interviewing, substance-abuse counseling, and restorative justice. “There are starting to be some established practices around the work,” he said, “not just, ‘Go out and mentor some kids.’”
Harris County, Texas, also sent a team from their juvenile-probation department. Their attendance reflected a recent political shift: In 2016, the county elected a reform-minded district attorney, and last year Democrats swept the county judges’ races. “It’s good timing for us,” said Steven Willing, a Harris County official who was part of the delegation. “Seven or eight years ago, it would have hit a brick wall.”
Arguably, the city that has embraced the approach most deeply is Washington, D.C., where Clinton Lacey directs the Division of Youth Rehabilitation Services. In addition to working with young people, credible messengers there are responsible for helping their families, identifying underlying challenges like food insecurity, physical abuse, and housing instability, and connecting them to government and nonprofit services. Some work full-time inside the district’s residential treatment facility, where young people who have committed serious offenses are held. Each quarter, when officials review the progress of supervisees, credible messengers attend the meeting to offer input. “We have infused Credible Messengers into the agency,” Lacey wrote in an email. “They are in programmatic and policy discussions at the highest level.”
Drawing on money saved by shrinking the number of young people held in secure facilities, the program’s budget for credible messengers has grown from zero in 2015 to $3.4 million in 2019, the bulk of it for contracting 75 full-time credible messengers. That makes it one of the district’s largest discretionary investments in public safety, according to Deputy Mayor Kevin Donahue. But he called it a “no-brainer” because the program effectively delivers social services to the hardest-to-reach youth. “We can spend all the money in the world,” he said, “but if we don’t create something that is accessible to the person who needs it, it’s not going to get utilized.”
A looming question is whether the legitimacy that credible messengers derive from their personal experiences outside the system can endure within it. In New York, Malik said there is an inherent tension working alongside probation officers, who may share his goals but have different ideas about how to achieve them. When a supervisee isn’t compliant with the conditions of his probation, an officer may want to drag the kid back in front of a judge, whereas Malik is inclined to reach out by phone or through a trusted mutual acquaintance and convince him to return. “You’re in the business of helping, and I’m in the business of helping, and the way we help might not always be the same type of help,” he said. “We have to be cool with that. I had to learn how to be cool with that.”
Lacey worries that all of this could be reduced to just another program—one that benefits participating youth but fails to alter the structural workings of criminal-justice agencies. “We always have to guard against the substance of the movement being coopted, sometimes unintentionally—thinking you can bottle it and package it and sell it and give it away,” he said.
Instead, he hopes that credible messengers can transform the system into which they have been drafted. Working as respected colleagues alongside probation officers and social workers, they demonstrate that even the most disadvantaged communities have the capacity to address some of their own hardships. Lacey said that implies a new orientation for the juvenile-justice system itself, less as a source of traditional services than as a facilitator of healing from unconventional ones. “It’s helping—in my view, in my aspirations—change our sense of ourselves and who we are in the scheme of things.”
This article is part of our project “The Presence of Justice,” which is supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge.
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Ted Alcorn is a writer based in New York. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Financial Times, and Guernica.
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