The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
March 22, 2018

How credible messengers translate experience into action in criminal justice

March 22, 2018

The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, are inspiring. Their courage in sharing their experiences so soon after the mass shooting that killed 17 at their school, and the fierceness of their advocacy for change, seem to be moving the needle on the issue of gun safety. Most of us have never experienced the pain and trauma that comes with surviving a mass shooting, and when these young people talk, people listen.

It’s not a novel concept. People with lived or relatable experience, or “credible messengers,” can get through to audiences in ways others can’t.

Last year, we released “A Matter of Time,” a feature on long prison terms in America. Despite the animated data visualizations and eye-catching graphics, visitors spend most of their time with the personal narratives.

How do we harness the potential of the credible messenger to create positive outcomes on a local scale? A recent evaluation of the Arches Transformative Mentoring Program in New York City provides a strong example of how it can be done and what the results can look like.

Making a difference in the lives of justice-involved youth

Arches offers a curriculum geared toward justice-involved young people ages 18 to 24. Over 6 to 12 months, participants engage in group mentoring led by credible messengers, many of them formerly justice involved and from participants’ neighborhoods. Some have even been on the other side of similar programs.

The program’s results are promising and are inspiring other cities to look at similar initiatives. One-year felony reconvictions decreased by over two-thirds for Arches participants, and two-year felony reconvictions decreased by over half.

And while it’s impossible to isolate the role mentors play, participants speak positively about their mentors and describe trusting relationships—something previous work suggests is more likely to develop when mentors and mentees share common backgrounds. Further research could help us better understand the essential characteristics of such mentors.

Keeping communities safe

How have other efforts engaged credible messengers to make a difference?

The Los Angeles Gang Reduction and Youth Development Program employs community intervention workers to conduct street outreach in response to violent incidents. Community intervention workers, who have specialized knowledge of the places, people, and gang activity in the areas where they live and work, focus on controlling rumors, interrupting potential retaliatory cycles, and finding other means to prevent further violence. The program’s effectiveness largely depends on the intervention workers’ standing and reliability with community members.

On a slightly different scale, several innovative models for criminal justice reform call for community-led or community-informed reforms. The participatory justice model, which proposes that community members have a say in neighborhood safety strategies, depends on credible messengers sharing their experiences and informing policy change. The core idea remains the same: no one knows better than someone who has been there.

At the state and local government level, organizations are incorporating community-level experience into the investment of public safety resources. An innovative program within the Colorado Department of Corrections uses a community organization as an intermediary to build relationships with, provide logistic support for, and help distribute funds to local organizations working to engage community members around their vision for public safety.

Informing research

Increasingly, we as researchers depend on credible messengers to inform our work. Community-based participatory research calls on residents to guide research so outcomes can be useful to the community. The Community Voices project partners with local leaders to survey how residents view law enforcement in their neighborhoods and equips residents with data to pair with their personal experiences.

Weaving credible messengers into the fabric of projects is not without its challenges, taking time and effort. To start, how do you identify who’s “credible”? Being from certain communities and having had certain experiences may be meaningful, but not all community members can play this unique role. Exploring what makes a person credible is an important next step.

But we need look no further than the front page of today’s newspaper to see the power of credible messengers to make a difference not only in individual lives, but in communities and beyond. The Arches Transformative Mentoring Program evaluation is just the latest in a growing body of research building that evidence base.

Illustration by Oivind Hovland/Getty Images.

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.