For Julius Walker, success is defined by small moments. Like the time one of Walker’s students called his cohort his “family.”
The significance of such a moment might escape the notice of some people working in the criminal justice system. But not Walker. He knew right then that his student was going to be all right. “When [students] know they have a support system to latch on to, it gives them a lot more confidence to face the world,” Walker says. “Our goal is to get the young people to know that we are in this with them.”
Walker is the program coordinator for Arches Transformative Mentoring, a New York City-based program that works with youth on probation to change, in sustainable ways, the behaviors and attitudes that can lead to criminal activity.
The key to this program is an initiative called the credible messenger approach to restorative justice. It pairs at-risk and justice-involved youth, who are individuals who’ve been involved with the criminal system, with people who have had comparable life experiences, such as ex-convicts or ex-gang members. “When you think of a credible messenger, you think of those closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” says Jason Clark, the program manager at King County Credible Messengers Initiative in Washington.
These credible messengers, who are paid and trained for their work, support and guide 16-to-24 year-olds in every aspect of life. Whether it’s explaining how probation works or answering a text message at 2 a.m., credible messengers provide tools, strategies and personal experience to keep the youth out of the criminal system.
A credible messenger approach not only prevents young adults from reentering the penal system, it also has the potential to save money. In 2011, 43 percent of people released from incarceration were rearrested, according to Pew Center on the States. According to Vera Institute of Justice, in 2015 the average cost of an inmate was $33,274 a year. In places like New York, it can cost around $247,000 a year to house a single inmate, according to A More Just New York City.

A King County Credible Messenger cohort.

Credible messengers sit at the intersection of education, government and community, and the approach is designed to work holistically. Program officers work directly with government employees, like law enforcement and teachers. For example, the Arches Transformative Mentoring program relies on probation officers referring young adults to the program, whereas many mentorship programs do not have those same connections.
Programs in Jackson, Mississippi and Staten Island, New York, have benefited from credible messenger initiatives. And they’ve been proven to work.
These communities are seeing reductions in rearrests, violations and antisocial behavior. Beyond that, youths are more engaged in their community, and often become credible messenger alumni themselves.
Recidivism rates have fallen drastically among youth participating in the Arches Transformative Mentoring program. Those youths had a 69 percent lower recidivism rate within a year as compared to youths who did not participate in the program. And after two years, it was 57 percent lower than their peers, according to an evaluation by the Urban Institute.
In New York, where more than 2,500 justice-involved people have been paired with credible messengers, that translates to large numbers of youth staying out of prison.
These results are inspiring other communities to adopt a credible messenger approach.
Across the country, at the King County Credible Messengers Initiative, Clark is implementing a credible messenger program for all young adults living in his county.
“Not only are we able to provide opportunities that can help previously incarcerated leaders grow in their professional leadership,” Clark says. “But we keep our young people out of the system, and we keep our communities safe.”
Clark believes credible messengers have the potential to work in every county, every city and every jurisdiction. “There are huge opportunities for this to be taken on nationwide,” he says.
More: This Is How You End the Foster Care to Prison Pipeline