Growing attention to the personal and financial costs of imprisoning large numbers of Americans has built up demand for programs that reduce incarceration rates. With the average cost of keeping an inmate behind bars exceeding $31,000 a year, much of the focus has turned to efforts to reduce recidivism. According to a 2014 report from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, 70 percent of those released from incarceration find themselves back in the system within three years.
Recidivism is a particularly acute issue for New York City, where the cost per year to house an inmate tops six figures. Arches Transformative Mentoring, a program for early offenders and a current finalist in the Harvard Kennedy School's Innovation in American Government awards, demonstrates a strikingly successful approach to keeping young offenders from returning to jail.
The Arches program underscores the value of applying research to design evidence-based programs and then using rigorous evaluation to determine efficacy. The program capitalizes on the capacity of young minds to generate new habits and behavioral patterns that can help early offenders get back on the right track and stay out of trouble in the long run. It pairs young offenders on probation with what it calls "credible messengers" from their neighborhoods: mentors who have already passed through the criminal justice system and have themselves managed to break the cycle of incarceration.
The Arches program was born of broad collaboration between the public and nonprofit sectors. In 2011, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg created a public-private partnership called the Young Men's Initiative (YMI) in an effort to close gaps in education, health, justice and employment outcomes, particularly for young black and Latino men. In 2012, YMI partnered with the city's Department of Probation to launch the Arches program, which provides guidance to probation clients aged 16 to 24 living in seven of New York's highest-crime neighborhoods.
The program pairs its "credible messengers" with small groups of young offenders. The mentors run bi-weekly gatherings and are on call 24/7 to ensure that those facing pressure toward returning to criminal activity always have someone to rely on. Participants can work with multiple mentors, allowing strong relationships to develop organically. The mentors also work with probation officers, family members and others to ensure that their mentees have a community of support around them. And Arches works toward developing internal career paths for highly effective mentors.
Arches was originally funded by the Bloomberg Philanthropies. Since that grant ended in 2016, the program's costs have been covered by the Department of Probation. To date, the program has graduated more than 1,100 youths, around 200 a year.
It's clear that the Arches program has been a win for its participants. They were 69 percent less likely to have repeat felony convictions in their first year after beginning probation than those in a control group, according to a study by the Urban Institute. In the two years after beginning probation, Arches participants were 57 percent less likely to break the law again. The program is also a win for ex-offender mentors -- the "credible messengers" -- who are interested in giving back to those who find themselves in similar positions as the mentors were when they were younger.
Focusing on people rather than process and growing out of an understanding of the kinds of leadership that young people would be most responsive to, the Arches program has been repeatedly cited as a breakthrough. It provides governments with an opportunity to not only begin to get the costs of incarceration under control and head off criminal behavior but also to make a lasting difference in a young person's life.