Conflict Intervention as Crime Prevention

Report Author

Justin R. Corbett

Linkedin | Google | ORCID

Table of Contents

Conceptual Foundations


Conflict, broadly defined, is consequence from (at least perceived) discordant interests and the efforts we make toward their satisfaction. This friction can manifest through intrapsychic assumption or international actions, as lifelong tension or explosive eruptions, in latent or life- altering intensity, and in nearly any conceivable iteration in between.

Conflict’s consequence may well be constructive – opportunities, as they are, to clarify interests, deepen understanding, forge cohesion,7 brainstorm, problem-solve, and collaborate. More commonly, though, we understand conflict and attend to its consequence through its destructive capacities – occurrences to rue and rail against, rather than opportunities to relish and rise above. In this latter reality, interpersonal conflicts take shape as the most upsetting of all daily stressors.8

The capacity to constructively reorient conflict is woefully underdeveloped in so many; fueling needless escalations from bluster to bullets and countless other objectively abject trajectories. It is this latter, harmful manifestation of conflict, as well as individuals’ deficiencies therewith to which the service providers lend their expertise and which positions their potential at the very core of criminal and prevention relevance.9

Dispute Resolution

Dispute resolution is presented as a set of services and skills deployed to minimize the negative consequence of conflict and maximize its latent potential. It includes everything from conflict retrospectives to collaborative visioning; one-on-one conflict coaching to large group facilitations; intimate, closed-door tête-à-têtes to open space communal gatherings; and restorative post- conviction re-entry circles to individualized preemptive skills trainings. The breadth of dispute resolution programming offered by the service providers is expansive, ranging from traditional tribal practices to highly- technical mediation procedures; experiences as seemingly dissimilar as sweat lodges and surgical rooms, yet connected through their mutual concern for the afflicted, the careful curation of their respective crafts, and the acknowledgement that while we may be more fragile than seems fair, we are far more resilient than we often realize. In these ways, providers’ services are tools of resolution, restoration, and – ultimately – preemptive restraint, many of which have been refined over decades or more of development11 and are now recognized as effective, evidence- based criminal justice interventions.12

Dispute resolution services achieve far more than the precarious negative peace of prevented crime, where the absence of harm – personal or property, intimate or stranger, intentional or un – is simply a respite between battles; an uneasy and easily disturbed stasis of stalemate. Instead, through encouraging empathic ears, evoking ‘ye mayest’ mindsets, and exciting futurepreneurial spirits, providers frame the conditions for a genuinely positive peace, one in which crime, disorder, and fear are not only tactically prevented, but practically de-popularized as instruments of legitimate recourse.

Figure 3. Conflict Assistance Outlets, Preferences, and Triggers10

This visualization synthesizes select findings from a 2015 survey of 65,000 U.S. adults designed to reveal the public’s ongoing conflict profile, its preferences for numerous conflict assistive outlets, and the conflict intensity thresholds required to trigger those outlets’ utilizations. Notable is the tight grouping of thresholds for various police and professional outlets, led by law enforcement as the primary choice for desistive interventions among a majority of the population.

Criminally Relevant Activity

Criminally relevant activity is a combination of known and unknown criminal activity, subcriminal disorderly conduct, broader fear of crime, and cognitive-behavioral approaches to conflict that serve as risk factors predisposing individuals and their interactions to elevated rates of subsequent criminality.


From a prevention perspective, crime should be acknowledged as much for what is known about such activity, as for what remains unknown. In NYC, official statistics detailing index and many lesser crimes are carefully examined, with deviations scrutinized and responses adjusted at everything from the patrol to precinct and broader Departmental levels.

Often unacknowledged within those statistics or their triggered responses, is the vast amount of crime occurring beyond that charted in formal reports, which can conservatively double the rate of property and violent crime in most areas.13 One longitudinal study, for example, reported that while 29% of the studied population had been convicted of a crime, 93% self-reported committing at least one offense.14 That not all criminally relevant activity acquires its available legal designation15 is an unsurprising result of numerous psychological,16 social,17 and structural18 factors.19 Still, acknowledging its presence is necessary to ensuring a full accounting of prevention-oriented intervention impact. 20


Disorder is subcriminal conduct that presents as ecological concentrations of cues that disturb the civil and unencumbered use of public space,21 and harm individuals’ physical or emotional well- being. Disorder can manifest in various forms, including physical (e.g. graffiti, litter, vacant housing), private (e.g. physical or emotional harm occurring in private interactions), and social (e.g. drinking in public, selling or using drugs, or teenagers causing a disturbance), and can elicit individual and societal reactions just as varied and intense as those involving actual crimes.22


Fear of crime is a complex23 and widespread phenomenon, generating a great deal of worry from 53% of the U.S. adult population24 and 48% of NYC residents.25 Reciprocally linked to perceptions of local crime,26 this fear produces a positive feedback loop of ever escalating defensive constraint behaviors predicted by dissatisfaction with the criminal justice system27 and resulting in decreasing perceptions of local safety.

Cognitive-Behavioral Risk Factors

Lining the fuel bed of criminally relevant activity are cognitive-behavioral risk factors that facilitate the rapid or recurrent escalation of conflict from being resistibly to reliably criminal. Here, contextual and predispositional factors challenge the capacity of participants to create and prefer legal alternatives. Tendencies toward aggression, impulsivity, and the misinterpretation of others’ communications are but some of the factors that elevate the probability of escalated responses to and subsequent criminality resulting from otherwise manageable conflict interactions. In this way, poor conflict engagement skills and other cognitive-behavioral risk factors are directly responsible for criminal activity of untold, yet undeniable volume.

Figure 4. Crime, Disorder, and Fear in NYC20

In this visualization, the size of the entire page represents the total NYC adult population. Each successively smaller nested rectangle represents the 2015 reported rates of fear, disorder, and crime, respectively. Fear of crime is palpably present in 48% of the population. Disorder (i.e. physical or emotional harm occurring in the ongoing conflicts of NYC residents) was surveyed at 40.1%. Finally, crime (i.e. arrests and criminal summonses) originates from 9.7% of the population.

Prevention Relevance

Prevention relevance refers to the attributes of and effects from interventions that are capable of influencing the cessation, moderation, or pre- emption of criminal activity. Thus conceptualized, prevention relevant interventions may take the form of late-stage, post-conviction services targeting repeat offenders. They may be responsive applications addressing emerging criminally relevant activities or risk factors within a particular community. Or, they may be entirely pre-emptive endeavors targeting those with no prior contact with the criminal justice system. In each, interventions achieve prevention relevance through their ability to reduce the probability of future criminal activity from those they serve and from within those recipients’ respective spheres of influence.

Prevention relevant interventions are categorized by the broad populations they target for service, including the general public (primary prevention), at-risk populations (secondary), or specific at-risk or criminally involved individuals (tertiary). These populations can present with complex risk profiles that are shaped through various life domains28 and are influenced by a dose-response relationship that magnifies or mollifies overall criminogenic need gradually and then suddenly. In general, earlier, multi- domain, widely accessible interventions – as is representative of many providers’ portfolios – achieve the greatest prevention relevance through their ability to excise the potentiality of criminality from conflict.

Risk Targeting

Criminogenic risk29 is central to so much of contemporary criminology’s pursuit to understand the causes and correlates of criminal activity. Service providers alleviate criminogenic risk in each of the categories of prevention targeting, assist clients with varying profile typologies, and arrange services throughout the core domains of recipients’ lives. Notably, their services also address four of the six program groups outlined within the influential Risk-Need-Responsivity (RNR) Simulation Tool.30

Prevention Categories. Though most service providers are better known for their general, ‘population-level’ prevention efforts, they operate numerous risk- targeted interventions, as well.31 Examples of service provider interventions across criminology’s prevention trichotomy, include enhancements to the public awareness of constructive approaches to conflict and to general conflict competencies (primary); improvements to troublesome interaction routines and to perceptions of the criminal justice partners (secondary); and facilitation of violence-imminent or -involved conflicts and the prosocial reintegration of offenders back into their support networks and broader communities (tertiary).32

Profile Typologies. Though service providers engage clients with diverse profile typologies, their overarching objectives for each are to reduce the influence of harmful risk factors, reinforce resilience factors, and develop protective factors.33

Life Domains. Finally, service providers assist clients across multiple criminogenic domains, with active programming currently operating in each of the family, individual, neighborhood, peer, school, and work domains.34

Figure 5. Characteristics of Criminogenic Needs

Criminogenic needs have been explored along a number of revealing dimensions. This investigative nuance is befitting the consequence these needs produce. Service providers’ interventions are similarly nuanced, providing an eclectic mix of programming that is responsive to diversely situated criminogenic needs, including early, protective-prominent, and multi-domain interventions that target both high-risk and population-level audiences.


7. Bastian, B., Jetten, J., Ferris, L.F. (2014).

8. Interpersonal conflicts account for up to 16% of daily mood variance. Further, they are resistant to the emotional habituation from which other stressors benefit, meaning repeated exposure to interpersonal conflicts does not contribute to a heightened tolerance to the associated conflict-related stress (Bolger, N., et al., 1989a).

9. Service providers are unmoved by naïve illusions to the reductive seduction of others’ problems (Martin, C., 2015). They appreciate and are indeed actuated by the complexity of conflict; its roots in core issues of identity; its variably enduring and fleeting lifecycles; its pulsating spheres of consequence; and the dualism of its destructive and constructive manifestations.

10. As indicated in this visualization, constructive conflict interventions such as coaching or mediation services are the public’s penultimate preference for late stage, high-intensity conflicts – self-selected only after other professional and law enforcement alternatives have been explored. This highlights the importance of referral partnerships with law enforcement, as – on average – the public will engage police to help resolve a conflict prior to engaging a mediator. As such, officers represent an important inflection point to help divert escalating conflicts from the criminal justice system and toward providers’ constructive, preventatively potent interventions. Survey data sourced from Corbett, J.R. (2015a, September).

11. For example, VOM – now practiced in over 400 U.S. jurisdictions (Bright, C., 2015) – was first implemented stateside in Elkhart, Indiana in the late 1970s, which itself was modeled after several preexisting Canadian programs (Umbreit, M.S., et al., 2000).

12. Designation of criminal justice interventions as “evidence-based” is one that is carefully considered, data- and research-informed, and powerfully influential in the design of effective public policy. A prominent working definition of “evidence-based” is: ‘A program or practice that has had multiple site random controlled trials across heterogeneous populations demonstrating that the program or practice is effective for the population.’ The designation of victim-offender mediation (VOM) and its closely aligned relative services (e.g. group conferencing, restorative justice, community reintegration) was most recently confirmed as “evidence-based” in 2016 (Washington State Institute for Public Policy, Evidence-Based Practice Institute, 2016).

13. Referred to as the ‘dark figure’ of crime, the scale and scope of unreported or otherwise unacknowledged criminal activity is quite substantial. For example, in one of the more detailed longitudinal studies of criminal activity, convicted men self-reported an average of 22 offenses for every conviction known to the criminal justice system. When including unconvicted men, the average number of self-reported offenses climbed to 39 for every known conviction (Farrington, D.P., et al., 2006).

14. See: Farrington, D.P., et al. (2006). More broadly, the value, veracity, and voluntariness of self-reported criminal and disorderly activities has resulted in their increasing resonance among criminologists and policymakers alike. For example, as a result of the increasing difficulty in obtaining detailed official criminal records, and the acknowledgement that such records are more reflective of shifting policing priorities than objective measures of offense occurrence, researchers have increasingly relied upon self-reported criminal activity and involvement with the criminal justice system to examine criminal careers. Notwithstanding some contradictory and nuanced findings related to respondent impression management (Mills, J., Kroner, D.G., 2006) and the under- or over-reporting of their involvement with the criminal justice system (such as modest statistical variance along age, gender, race, and crime severity variables), self-reported activity has proven to be a reliable complementary metric in determining the scope and scale of criminal activities. Used as a complimentary measure alongside official and victim reports, self-reports of problematic behaviors can help construct a more thorough understanding of the modes and motivations of criminality. For more on the validity and current applications of self-reports of criminal and disorderly behaviors, see: Autry, K.M., Farrington, D.P., Cold, J.W. (2015); and Hindelang, M.J., Hirschi, T., Weis, J.G. (1979).

15. Black, D. (1979).

16. Individual avoidance (Kilpatrick, D.G., Acierno, R., 2003), fear of retaliation (Hale, C., 1996), rationalizations (Crocker, J., Major, B., 1989), and sub/conscious rejections of the identity and imputed implications of victimhood (Brennan, I.R., 2016) are all psychological factors discouraging the identification with and reporting of what informed observers would objectively consider criminal activity.

17. Normative behaviors and expectations within select interpersonal relationships, deviant micro- and sub- cultures (Cohen, P., 1972), and even select social mores (Bowers, J., 2010) have been identified as encouraging certain criminal activities and/or discouraging the reporting of others. Membership in certain socio-cultural identity groups further influence historic perceptions of and ongoing cooperativeness with law enforcement authorities, often in ways which complicate the surfacing and full accounting of local criminal activity.

18. Enforcement policies themselves – everything from circumscript monitoring of select indices, the selection of topics for officer training, in/formal prosecutorial priorities, implicit messaging embedded within judicial sanctions, and even the funding of specific intervention programs over others – collectively contribute to structurally influence the identification and transition of objectively criminally-relevant activities into formally acknowledged crimes.

19. Combined, these psychological, social, and structural factors serve to discount objectively criminally-relevant activity from official view until only a subjectified minority remains, leaving the majority unaddressed to fester and fuel tomorrow’s focus.

20. Working outwards, the ‘Crime, Disorder, and Fear in NYC data visualization is based on the following references. Crime is represented as the total number of arrests of (293,095; Division of Criminal Justice Services, 2016) and criminal summons issued to (327,306; Barry, J.A., 2016) NYC adults for 2015. Disorder is represented by the 40.1% of the NY adults who have reported experiencing some form of emotional or physical harm within an ongoing conflict that has not resulted in law enforcement involvement. (This figure is drawn from a representative sample of 1,000 New Yorkers surveyed as part of this broader evaluation.) Fear is represented by the 53% of the U.S. adult population that reports having ‘a great deal’ of worry about local crime (Davis, A., 2016, April 6). Finally, the NYC population is represented by the 6,703,517 adults who maintain a residence in the City, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau (2016a).

21. Building extensively on the incivilities theory (Taylor, R.B., 1999), this definition aligns with that outlined by Sampson and Raudenbush (1999) in their work pioneering the applications of ecometrics and systematic social observation in quantifying local perceptions of disorder; an approach heralded as a conceptual contemporary of the more prominent – and NYC policy darling – “broken windows” (Wilson, J.Q., Kelling, G., 1982).

22. Innes, M. (2004).

23. Fear of crime is a complex construct helpfully trifurcated into emotional fear, cognitive perceived risk, and constraint behaviors, and collectively recast as the ‘threat of victimization’ (Rader, N.E., 2004).

24. Davis, A. (2016, April 6).

25. A 2014 Quinnipiac University poll reported that while 48% of NYC residents worry about being a victim of a crime, there was nearly 20% of variance between respondents’ Boroughs of residence (Bronx: 50%, Brooklyn: 51%, Manhattan: 40%, Queens: 49%, Staten Island: 59%; Schwartz, D., 2014).

26. For a review of this connection, see: Hicks, S., Brown, S. (2013).

27. Some of the strongest predictors of perceived risk include perceptions of increasing crime in a community, property crime victimization experiences, and dissatisfaction with the criminal justice system (Rader, N.E., May, D.C., Goodrum, S., 2007).

28. For example, “the causes of youthful criminal activity are complex, and ... reside in a network of interacting variables relating to the characteristics and circumstances of the young person” (Hoge, R.D., Andrews, D.A., 1996).

29. Criminogenic needs are dynamic risk factors that, given their sequence and synthesis, can essentially ensure or effectively eliminate an individual’s probability of engaging in criminal activity. Within the prevailing Risk-Need-Responsivity (RNR) model, the ‘Central Eight’ risk/need factors are (1) A history of antisocial behavior, (2) antisocial personality pattern, (3) antisocial cognition, (4) antisocial associates (collectively, ‘The Major Four’), (5) family/marital circumstances, (6) school/work, (7) leisure/recreation, and (8) substance abuse (collectively, ‘The Moderate Four’; Andrews, D.A., Bonta, J., 2010). These broad categories have been further parsed into hundreds of specific behaviors, cognitions, and conditions, many of which service providers directly constructively influence through their interventions (see Figure 17 for a list of criminogenic needs addressed by service providers’ interventions).

30. The RNR Simulation Tool is a series of online portals developed at George Mason University and designed to apply the RNR framework through the streamlined assessment of individuals, treatment programs, and jurisdictional capacity. The Tool categorizes treatment programs into six Groups, recommending weighted development priorities for each based on an local aggregated offender profile. These Groups are categorized as: (A) Dependence on Hard Drugs, (B) Criminal Thinking/Cognitive Restructuring, (C) Self Improvement and Management, (D) Interpersonal Skills, (E) Life Skills, (F) Punishment Only. Service providers’ current portfolio of interventions actively addresses the stated objectives of Groups B, C, D, and E. For a detailed description of these Groups and more on the RNR Simulation Tool, see: Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence, 2013).

31. For a discussion of ‘population-level’ versus ‘high-risk’ intervention targeting, see: Coid, J.W. (2003).

32. For numerous other categorical and specific examples of service provider interventions and impact, see the ‘NYC Practice and Potential’ columns in this report’s ‘Categories of Impact’ segment, as well as the ‘Mechanisms of Impact’ segment.

33. Given the dynamic dose-response relationship between criminogenic needs, preexisting protective factors (e.g. strong family bonds, school success, low impulsivity, etc.) or reductions in risk factors can work to offset the potency of other, unaddressed risk factors (McLaren, K.L., 2000).

34. As community-based programs, service providers are capable of addressing multiple criminogenic domains (i.e. family, peer, school, and work contexts). For more on how community-based programs are uniquely positioned to ensure multi-domain impact, see: Howell, J.C., et al. (1995); McLaren, K.L. (1997); and Sherman L.W., et al. (1998).