Lessons in Empowerment from NYC

Richard Good

As a general rule, unsolicited emails with “Want to go to New York?” as their subject header are probably best deleted without opening – if an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  But when such an email comes in from Phil Bowen, Director of the Centre for Justice Innovation, my advice would be to open it, and to reply “yes please”.

Because it was with just such an email that planning began for an intensive programme of visits to four projects run under the auspices of the Centre for Court Innovation in New York, and an engagement with the Center for Employment Opportunities.

The CCI projects were very different.  One focused on preventing violence; another on interrupting it.  One diverted offenders from away prison and into support; another helped people released from prison to settle back into the community.  The Center for Employment Opportunities, on the other hand, does exactly what it says – creating opportunities for “transitional employment” for people leaving prison.

But while each was different, what struck me most was that they all had one feature in common, and it’s a word that we don’t often associate with criminal justice programmes: empowerment.

At the Brownsville Community Justice Center in Brooklyn, empowerment takes numerous forms.  At its most radical, it means a Youth Court that trains teenagers aged 14-18 to serve as jurors, judges and youth and community advocates.  Meeting in public, but with a commitment to confidentiality, they hear real-life cases of other teenagers who have committed low-level offences. Without assessing guilt or innocence the teenager volunteers use positive peer pressure to help their peers who have committed offences to pay back the community and receive the help they need to prevent them going deeper into the justice system.

At the other end of the city, in the Bronx, Save Our Streets (SOS) is empowering a whole community to embrace and promote a vision of moving past gun violence.  Treating violence as a disease and using public health strategies to reduce its spread, the project educates, mobilises and supports local community organisations, churches and pastors, parents and their children to speak out against violence.  The project’s “Violence Interrupters” – a seemingly fearless team of people, all of whom have intimate knowledge of life on the streets – have themselves been empowered to engage with people at risk of perpetrating violence, offering guidance on how to think and behave differently.

In the Harlem Re-entry Court people coming back from prison are given an empowering structure of support and supervision as they complete their parole and reintegrate back into the community.  Families are empowered too, with a dedicated social worker engaging with family members before and after participants are released.  Beyond that, the local faith community is empowered to engage with participants, providing circles of support beyond that which the programme itself can deliver. Research has shown that the project offers a 22% reduction in reconviction rates, and a 60% reduction in reconvictions for serious crime.

Closest to my own work in Northern Ireland, in the Center for Employment Opportunities empowerment takes the form of employability and employment.  With a vision “that anyone with a recent criminal history who wants to work has the preparation and support needed to find a job and stay connected to the workforce”, the programme provides job-readiness training, transitional job opportunities, permanent job placement and post-placement support.  Independent analysis shows a 22% reduction in reconvictions among the people who go through the programme.

Empowerment clearly works in New York, and I came away more convinced than ever that it can work here too.  Beginning with support from the Centre for Justice Innovation’s Streetcraft Scholarship programme, I have spent the last two years developing the Turnaround Project, which aims to support people on their journey away from offending behaviour.  At its core is a conviction that the best way of doing that is to create a network of people and programmes that, working together, can repair the rupture that the criminal justice system often creates between people and the community in which they will live and work when they have completed their sentences.  Empowering individuals is important, but the New York projects we visited demonstrate that empowering their families and the wider community is equally important.

Too often, criminal justice interventions do the opposite – disempowering and disconnecting people from the very supports and networks they need if their journey away from offending is to be sustained.  So I come home from New York determined and, yes, empowered to complete the development of a project that I believe will do the make a real difference.  So if an email from me pops into your inbox, with a subject header saying “want to come to Belfast?”, please don’t delete it.


Richard Good is Director of the Turnaround Project, which is being developed in partnership with the the Northern Ireland Prison Service and the Probation Board for Northern Ireland, and which aims to engage a range of organisations and the wider community in supporting people on their journey away from offending.  Richard can be contacted at richard.good@theturnaroundproject.org, or you can follow the project on Twitter, @turnaroundproj.