For generations, the United States has overly relied on prosecution and incarceration as the primary forms of accountability, but with lackluster results (i.e. upwards of 80% of youth exiting juvenile prisons are rearrested within three years). Given the high cost and poor track record of punitive punishments, LCCR and other advocates are pushing for alternatives to the traditional prosecution and incarceration routes. But what are those alternatives? One is restorative justice, which we profiled a short while back. In this space today, though, let’s dive into the concept of Credible Messengers.
What are Credible Messengers?
Credible Messengers are a special type of mentor who have had similar lived experiences growing up as the arrested youth they serve. These mentors know what it’s like to come up in a poor neighborhood. They understand the challenges and barriers facing kids in those communities. Frequently, they’re people who have experienced juvenile arrest and incarceration themselves. Credible Messengers understand the realities arrested youth face, but with the benefit of age and experience.
This shared experience is critical to earning the trust of arrested youth, many of whom have previously been let down by the adults and systems (school, health, public safety) in their lives. Having lived in their shoes and come out stronger earns Credible Messengers a level of authenticity the other adults attempting to intervene seldom have.
Using shared language, Credible Messengers break through to system-involved youth to form unique, powerful, transformative and personal relationships. They provide a living example of hope and opportunity. They also equip their mentees with tools to regulate their behaviors and emotions.
Credible Messengers promote their mentees’ honesty and integrity, and challenge destructive thinking, attitudes, and actions. They offer their mentees love, see their strengths, encourage and teach them, and support them in developing skills and making better choices to heal and thrive. Just as important, they demonstrate that arrested youth are both capable of and worth of redemption.
Having an authentic, trusted, and supportive adult in their lives can bring about positive behavioral changes in ways that no amount of youth incarceration ever could. In short, Credible Messengers have the power to transform young lives.
How do Credible Messenger programs work?
Credible Messengers are trained to facilitate group mentoring sessions that help system-involved youth learn from and support one another. They are also available for one-on-one meetings. Credible Messengers maintain close contact with their mentees and are available at all hours, which is especially important if the child is facing a crisis and need someone to talk to immediately. They celebrate mentees’ wins – graduations, jobs, life accomplishments – and coach them through challenges.
Credible Messengers are specially trained on how to interview and dialogue with youth in motivational ways, address mental health issues that arise, enhance problem-solving skills, and more.
Notably, the Credible Messenger model doesn’t replace positive influences in the child’s life. Rather, it taps into existing sources of positive influence within families and communities to strengthen the child’s support network. Building trust and inspiring change from within, the model helps empower families and communities to more effectively take care of their own.
Credible Messenger initiatives have demonstrated improved outcomes for young people and their communities including:
Impact of Credible Messenger programs
Credible Messenger programs have operated in cities throughout the United States dating back to the 1990s, and the results are significant:
Beyond the cities cited above, Credible Messenger programs are operating in Atlanta, Houston, Washington DC, Chicago, and Milwaukee, to name a few. National leaders of credible messenger programming include the Credible Messenger Justice Center and the Credible Messenger Mentoring Movement.
Locally, New Orleans will soon relaunch the Violence Interruptors program, which has been built on the concept that credible messengers can interrupt cycles of gun violence through peer mediation.
We know that no one single program will end youth criminality in New Orleans. But we also know that the “tough on crime” policies clamored for whenever crime is on rise offer very little in the way of deterrence, safety, and rehabilitation. The Credible Messenger model, like restorative justice, offers another effective alternative for actually reaching arrested youth and curbing delinquent behavior, much to the benefit of the individual children involved and our community as a whole.
To learn more about Credible Messenger programs, please see our conversation with Clinton Lacey, President & CEO of the Credible Messenger Mentoring Movement.
Many thanks to LCCR volunteer Maureen Sheahan for contributing to this post.