Clinton Lacey is the CEO and president of the Credible Messenger Mentoring Movement (CM3), which focuses on supporting Credible Messenger Mentors who share similar life experiences with current justice-involved young people and are poised to have a transformative impact on an individual, family, community, and systemic level.
Lacey previously served as Director of the District of Columbia Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) and Deputy Commissioner of the New York City Probation Department. Other positions held by Lacey over his 30-year career include project manager with the W. Haywood Burns Institute, director of the Youth Justice Program at Vera Institute of Justice, and associate executive director of Friends of Island Academy, which serves 16- to 24-year-olds at Rikers Island, New York City.
Q: What led you to a career in Juvenile Justice? How did that happen?
A: In a very real sense, I was led to a career in Juvenile Justice as a result of my lifelong interest in civil and human rights issues. However, I hadn’t worked in the field until 1992 when I happened to hear about a small new organization serving youth at Rikers Island, NY, I became the second person hired at Island Academy to work with 16-21 years at the jail and in their communities throughout the five boroughs of New York City.
Q: Where did you grow up and what were your experiences as a young man that prepared you for these roles in Juvenile Justice or helped you avoid similar Juvenile Justice issues?
A: I was born in Harlem, NY, and grew up in neighboring Teaneck NJ. My parents, both from Alabama, met as young adults in Montgomery, and were close friends and collaborators with MLK, Rosa Parks, Joanne Robinson, and other activists involved in the Montgomery bus Boycott.
They continued to advocate for civil & human rights after moving to New York. I was raised in an activist household and developed a keen interest in juvenile justice-related issues. As a high school and college student, I became very active in anti-apartheid activities and other activities focused on promoting social, economic, and political justice here in the US and other nations impacted y colonialism, structured racism, etc. For me, all of these experiences continue to inform my thinking and actions into the Juvenile Justice space. It’s still about multigenerational marginalization of black, brown and poor people – with a particular emphasis on disparate treatment of those populations & failed policies still being practiced by the justice system.
Q: CM3 has been a mission and vision of yours for a while now. How did it come about and why do you see it as a solution?
A: After coming to the NYC Department of Probation as the deputy commissioner in 2011, I had the opportunity to spearhead the development and implementation of the Arches Transformative Mentoring program – the first iteration of what we now call Credible Messenger Mentoring.
That initiative which funded community based organizations to hire and support Credible Messengers, proved to be extremely successful (60% reduction of recidivism). In 2015 I was appointed Director of the District’s juvenile justice system (DYRS) and continued to expand the Credible Messenger model (served families and placed Credible Messengers inside of our secure facilities, again with great success (50% recidivism reduction).
In 2021, I left DYRS to launch CM3 with the core purpose of supporting and advancing CM work around the nation. I see CM work as a clear example of a shift in reliance and investment from solely juvenile justice systems, to communities. The CM’s are the community representatives who continue to reduce violence, reduce recidivism, provide vital life coaching to justice impacted people, while also changing justice policy & practice. In short, CM’s represent the infusion of a community voice, insight, and expertise into the system – with the result being better justice policy, better justice practice, increased public safety and far better outcomes for those most impacted by the system
Q: As you travel throughout the country, including Washington, DC, to engage city, state and community leaders, what are you hearing, seeing, and learning? Are the challenges familiar to your experiences and work?
A: While every state, county, city and community is unique in important ways, the core issues and challenges we need to address are being faced everywhere. All of the communities we seek to serve are facing, inadequate housing, education, health care and disparate treatment from the justice system. All of these communities are facing desperation, absence of hope and spikes in violence. SO as we provide credible messenger mentoring, it is not provided in a vacuum, but rather in the context of all of the challenges our people are facing. It’s all integral to our work.
Q: What do you say to our young people who are suffering piercing mental health issues and other challenges? How do you obtain buy in from them?
A: One of the biggest myths ever perpetrated is that people don’t want help, healing and opportunities to become well. They absolutely want all of the things that all people want in that regard. We obtain buy-in through our collective transparency, authenticity, and in communication of love for people and the belief that they are worthy.
Credible Messengers, youth, families and a growing number of justice system leaders are buying in to this vision of CM3 because they believe our efforts to form trusting relationships and utilize restorative practices represents a way forward out of the cycle of misery that has created and sustains our national mass incarceration crisis and growing culture of gun violence.