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.”
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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.”