Conflict Intervention as Crime Prevention

Report Author

Justin R. Corbett

Linkedin | Google | ORCID

Table of Contents

Executive Summary

Crime has a backstory. It has context with depth and scope well beyond the charges, headlines, or statistics that affirm its affront. Conflict is that backstory, that context. Preventing crime is more than intervening in its exclaimed moments, more than admonishing against its repeat. It requires intervening in the moments and movements preceding its conclusion, and acknowledging the frailties of will and skill that lead toward conflict's crescendos, so that both may be fortified against future, similar endings. By thus intervening, crime can become the side stories of personal and popular narratives that remain irregular and unrealized. Thus, through intervention, prevention.


This report is a review of the performance, policy, and potential of deploying conflict intervention as a tool for crime prevention in New York City. Specifically, this report examines the criminally relevant impact of Community Mediation Services (Queens), the Institute for Mediation and Conflict Resolution (The Bronx), the New York Center for Interpersonal Development (Staten Island), the New York Peace Institute (Brooklyn and Manhattan), and the Peacemaking Program (Red Hook). It summarizes and supports the role of these community dispute resolution and restorative justice organizations as productive partners within the portfolio of prevention and safety-oriented initiatives coordinated by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ). It synthesizes the latest and lasting literatures from criminology and friendly fields, pulling insights from emerging research and evidence-based meta-analyses, systematic reviews, and randomized controlled trials. It details twenty categories and a dozen functional mechanisms of service providers’ eclectic, criminally and preventatively-relevant impact. It presents dozens of opportunities for policy and programmatic refinement, including numerous data-informed, trouble-ready initiatives capable of quickly and comprehensively addressing significant criminogenic risk generators within the City’s criminal justice and educational systems. In short, this report affirms with data, detail, and decisiveness that mediation and aligned programming should be seen and supported as strategic contributors to the City’s crime prevention efforts.

Service providers should be seen and supported as strategic contributors to the City’s crime prevention efforts.

Borough-Wide & Catchment Area Evaluations

This report is the final product of two ambitious evaluations. The first was a review of MOCJ’s longstanding investment in Borough-wide community dispute resolution services. The second, an assessment of these providers’ supply of Catchment Area programming that targets high-crime NYCHA housing developments identified through and participating in the more comprehensive Mayor’s Action Plan. As the service providers for both initiatives and the primary takeaways from both evaluations are largely consonant, this report jointly presents the findings from both efforts, noting, where appropriate, specific nuance for each.

Evaluation Objectives & Approach

These evaluations shared four primary objectives, including: (1) map the programmatic landscape, (2) identify categories of impact, (3) identify specific mechanisms of impact, and (4) recommend smart practices and next steps. Toward these ends, this combined report stands as a notable contribution to furthering the collective appreciation for and understanding of the preventative performance and potential represented by the reviewed providers.

Methodologically, a Rapid Ethnographic Assessment was chosen for these evaluations due to its capacity to both hastily and holistically approach the wide range of interventions, as well as geographic and operational contexts present across the five supported service providers. Extensive evidence from aligned programming was sourced and associatively referenced throughout. In addition to external research, over 2,000 pages of internal, program-relevant documents were reviewed, more than 160 interviews were conducted, and over 12,000 respondents to micro-surveys on various conflict and crime-related inquiries were used to identify broad population sentiments and tease out specific themes of evaluation interest. Finally, a diverse range of extant City data was sourced to augment the largely qualitative mixed ethnographic methods identified above. These data included the reported statistics and curated stores from 311, criminal courts, the Criminal Justice Agency, MOCJ, NYC Analytics, NYC OpenData, NYPD, and numerous other City entities. Combined, these methods and materials help construct an elegant frame in which this report is now humbly hung.

Conceptual Foundations

Bracing this report’s frame are five concepts introduced within the report that help link – through research and rhetoric – conflict with crime, including: conflict, dispute resolution, criminally relevant activity, prevention relevance, and risk targeting. Briefly, this report defines conflict as the consequence from discordant interests and the attempts toward their resolution. Dispute resolution is presented as a series of services and skills deployed to minimize the negative consequences of conflict and maximize its constructive potential. Criminally relevant activity is defined as a combination of crime, disorder, fear, and the cognitive-behavioral risk factors that facilitate their former perceptible presentations – including, importantly, numerous conflict-triggering attitudes and actions. Prevention relevance refers to interventions that discourage criminal activity at any time from pre-emption to post- conviction, and target everything from personal to population-level audiences. Finally, risk targeting is on diagnosing and directing prevention relevant interventions toward specific conflict- oriented criminogenic risk factors. Taken together, these concepts help illuminate a global understanding of conflict’s connection to crime, namely: (1) conflict is a stressful experience that (2) actuates and sustains criminogenic risks in ways that (3) increase the probability of criminal activity, which can (4) be prevented using targeted interventions that (5) moderate risks and resolve the underlying conflict.

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.


Through service providers’ partnerships with MOCJ, conflict resolution and restorative interventions have been slowly embedded throughout the entirety of the City and are increasingly ensconced within specific Catchment Areas of greatest criminal relevance. Within each Borough, a community dispute resolution center with deep local ties works with criminal justice system representatives, community leaders, local schools, and other entities to responsively address matters of confidential and communal concern. They avail themselves to those experiencing their worst moments, presenting both charity and choice where neither seemed probable, and preventing the transition of conflict into crime.

Catchment Area service providers operate in intensely challenging environments, complicated by everything from superstorms to ghosts to some of the City’s worst violence; a surreal confluence that was described by one interviewee as a “dystopian bazaar of crazy, drugs, poverty, and salt.” Despite these challenges and the reticence of development management, service providers have begun to make significant inroads into these communities: training residents in conflict skills and as mediators, Peace Ambassadors, and Peacemakers; collaborating with fellow service providers; partnering with local resident organizations; and achieving important strides toward not only tactically preventing crime, fear, and disorder, but practically de-popularizing their constructs as legitimate instruments of conflict recourse.

Collective Programming

In their respective service areas, providers offer a veritable programming panoply. Their interventions are designed to address the interests of individual and institutional concern, remediate the hazards of various states of criminogenic risk, and target both precise and population-level audiences. Their specific services include conflict coaching, mediation, mentoring, Peacemaking, restorative practices, skills training, and numerous others. Many are well regarded within criminology and related fields as productive, evidence-based approaches to reducing crime and restoring those affected by its consequences.

Of particular note given their relative ease of scalability and lasting influence over individuals’ criminogenic risk profiles, are the various approaches providers take to conflict skills training. Annually, providers train nearly 5,500 individuals in enhanced conflict skills, including audiences as diverse as middle school youth and NYPD officers, victims and offenders, and those at greatest risk and those best positioned to intervene. Their topics include anger and impulsivity management, communication skills, empathy, parenting skills, perspective taking, problem solving, and many others, each allopathically administered to remediate known criminogenic risk factors. Given the feverish pace of some providers’ training activities and the resiliency of the skills they instill, service providers have collectively amassed a nebulous peace force of undeniable significance that is comparable in size to the NYPD – the random and ritual interventions by which are associated with everything from pacified hostilities to prevented homicides.

Collectively, service providers are on pace to directly assist nearly 35,000 individuals in 2016. As service providers’ interventions demonstrate a networking effect (i.e. a contagion of constructiveness), the broader sphere of influence cascading from their direct recipients is nearly 190,000 individuals annually, each constructively influenced and of measurably improved personal capacity to resist criminal incidents and inclinations.

Conflict-oriented interventions are productive, evidence-based approaches to reducing crime and restoring those it affects.

Collective Profile of Providers

The reviewed collection of service providers included four decades-long contributors to local safety and one relative upstart repurposing centuries-old practices to address local criminal concerns. They work with partners throughout the criminal justice system and the various communities they represent, drawing from more than twenty distinct referral sources that contribute more than 13,000 cases annually. Combined, their staffs number a modest 42 individuals, who are supported by a distributed network of 434 active volunteers who engage one-on-one along the fence-strewn, multi-floored frontlines of local conflict and crime. Belying their modest size, service providers are some of the most economical and effective resources available to local policymakers and criminal justice partners. They achieve impact with greater efficiency than alternatives benefiting from far greater support, and with far-ranging constructive consequence that reverberates across interpersonal, institutional, and even intergenerational measures.

Categories of Impact

The breadth and consequence of criminally relevant impact from mediative, restorative, and related interventions is expansive, including constructive influences at each of the individual, communal, and institutional levels.

Their cataloguing here represents one of the most inclusive and innovative presentations of the conflict intervention as crime prevention available to date. Each of the 20 categories of impact are presented as accessible, two-page policy briefs, including extensively annotated evidence, NYC-specific applications and proposals, and visualizations helpfully highlighting key takeaways. In brief, these categories and their illustrative provider impacts include:

    1. Overall Service Recipient Population: Inclusive of general service recipients who are not otherwise parsed into distinct categories and regardless their criminogenic risk or criminal affiliations, this population benefits from improved conflict competence and primary, population-level prevention effects.
    2. Youth Population: Currently targeting those aged 16 to 24 (despite ample evidence for the local need and effectiveness of interventions targeting even younger audiences), youth recipients benefit from the prevention and shortening of criminal careers, as well as improved educational climates and performance.
    3. At-Risk Populations: Including those with heightening criminogenic risk profiles or otherwise vulnerable to criminal incidents or inclinations, those at-risk benefit from the minimization of risks across multiple domains of daily life, and the expedited desistance pathways cleared as a result therefrom.
    4. Offender Population: Including both those who self-report and those formally known to the criminal justice system, offenders benefit from interventions that reduce recidivism and encourage accountability.
    5. Victim Population: Including those harmed by crime, disorder, and other egregious incivilities, victims benefits from their facilitated restoration, as well as reductions in both retaliatory crime, re-victimization, and secondary victimization.
    6. Strain Affected Population: Representing those negatively influenced by the stressors generated from the conflicts and criminal activities of close others, strain affected individuals benefit through the enhancement of resilient criminogenic needs and a reduction in criminal coping behaviors.
    7. Impelled Co-Offender Population: Representing those susceptible to conscription into otherwise personally resistible criminal activity, impelled co-offenders benefit from an increased capacity for resistance and the remediation of negative in-/out-group dynamics.
    8. Community: Representing broader service networks and neighborhoods, communities benefit from enhanced collective efficacy and the re-localizing of conflict and prevention ownership.
    9. Criminal Justice System Overall: Representing the aggregated impact across individual institutions, the criminal justice system benefits from overall reductions in systemic strain and improved public perceptions of procedural justice.
    10. Police Departments: NYPD and other law enforcement offices benefit from service provider partnerships that improve police- community relations and reduce the frequency of repeat, quality of life requests for service.
    11. Prosecutors’ Offices: Where productive partnerships with local DAs have been established, prosecutors’ offices can benefit from the inclusion of a meaningful non-jail diversion alternative that helps personalize the City’s response to crime.
    12. CriminalCourts: Service providers’ slowly re-/establishing relationships with NYC criminal courts can provide judicial staff a productive diversion outlet that reduces initial and follow-up resource commitments.
    13. Summons Courts: Processing the City’s torrent of criminal summonses, summons courts can benefit from service provider involvement by reducing overall systemic strain and providing a constructive outlet for defective or insufficient summonses.
    14. Probation Departments: Several providers are actively involved with the DOP, providing risk-moderating mentoring services, and could further help by reducing the probability of supervised probation sentences from the outset.
    15. Corrections Departments: Service providers could work with local jails and prison populations to facilitate smoother, more thoroughly supported re-entries into City life, including the reduction of re-arrests, convictions, and incarcerations.
    16. Public Housing: Working directly in several MAP Catchment Areas, service providers help improve residents’ overall quality of life and can reduce the time staff spends on triaging resident conflicts.
    17. Schools: As one of the more consequential partnership categories, service providers’ school-related programming serves as an effective Zero-Tolerance alternative and has been shown to be serially disruptive to the otherwise frustratingly resilient school-to- prison pipeline.
    18. Economic Impact: Monetizing the costs of crime prevented is a rather cold science compared to the interventions’ warm empathic roots. Still, even on this measure programs outperform several widely supported traditional processes, saving the criminal justice system up to $9 million annually based on MOCJ’s current investment level.
    19. Socioeconomic Impact: A broader accounting of the harms from conflict and crime reveal further contributions in the form of volunteer service and informal conflict-related emotional labor.
    20. Emerging Impact: Drawing from the leading edges of criminology and related field research, providers are increasingly recognized for their influence in destigmatizing criminal convictions and in disrupting the intergenerational transmission of such heritable heirlooms as crime and trauma.

The nuanced quantitative impact and moving anecdotal examples from these many categories are worth careful consideration. Notable illustrations include the ability of conflict intervention skills and services to generate a 34% reduction in youth recidivism, a 46% reduction in truancy, a 61% reduction in violent offending, an 80% reduction in victims’ desire for retaliation, a 49% reduction in crime-related post-traumatic stress, a 94% increase in perceptions of procedural justice, and the prevention of no fewer than 12 homicides in NYC during 2015, to name only a few of the quantified impacts chronicled in the full report.

Indeed, even accounting for the nearly 500 endnotes supportively augmenting the category briefs introduced above, service provider impact is almost certainly even greater than this or any report could exhaustively enumerate. Nevertheless, the ambitious coverage presented here is intended to deepen practitioners’ and policymakers’ appreciation for the criminally relevant capabilities of conflict intervention as both an acutely and diffusely effective instrument of prevention.

Service provider interventions prevent crime at everything from the interpersonal, institutional, and even intergenerational levels.

Mechanisms of Impact

Understanding the specific mechanisms through which service providers achieve their impact is key to methodically maximizing their effect. To this end, a series of twelve known and newly hypothesized mechanisms are reviewed to help refine providers’ own appreciation for the intricacies and influence of their interventions. Excluding mechanisms already more broadly treated elsewhere, such as collective efficacy and criminogenic needs servicing, the reviewed mechanisms are summarized as follows:

    1. Annexated Endearment: the ability of service providers to improve perceptions of, cooperative engagement with, and compliance with traditional justice institutions.
    2. Conspicuous Contingencies: the proposition that providers reduce criminal activity by being known, accessible alternatives.
    3. Constructive Propagation: the process by which attitudes and behaviors supportive of positive approaches toward conflict can measurably cascade through social networks.
    4. Criticality Interference: the sequencing of interventions in pivotal threshold-proximal stages of conflict lifecycles to avert hyper-escalation and reduce the probability of triggering criminal tipping points or escalatory criminal response feedback loops.
    5. Deferred Classification: the process of selectively withholding the assignment of criminal interpretations of conflicts in favor of referrals to non-legal entities equipped to constructively address their causes.
    6. Emotional Intelligence: the practice of improving the empathic competencies of clients through facilitated expressions of emotional states, training to enhance the perceptivity and internal regulation of such states, and both actively and ambiently modeling constructive conflict framing.
    7. Interaction Enhancement: the practices of improving interaction rituals and marginalizing the acceptance and application of harmful routine activities.
    8. Procedural Palliation: the easing of conflict-induced criminalism through the use of procedures that are perceived as and legitimated by their contextual responsiveness, expressiveness, and fairness.
    9. Prosocial Reintegration: the leveraging of social capital and networks to equip offenders or those at risk of offending with the resources and connections necessary to successfully remain or return trusted members of their local communities.
    10. Signal Ministrance: the awareness of and remedial attendance to select criminal, disorderly, and other uncivil incidents that portend broader social problems and influence perceptions of and responses to risk.
    11. Sublimated Criminalism: the channeling of criminal inclinations into socially acceptable means of satisfying underlying deviant urges.
    12. Upregulative Offloading: the process of minimizing conflict-induced cognitive fatigue in ways that improve self-monitoring and insulate against baser criminal susceptibilities.

Collectively, these mechanisms operate at the each of the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of prevention targeting, and animate providers’ substantial, strategic contributions to the City’s criminal justice priorities.

Functionally, these interventions work by addressing criminogenic risks, amplifying interactional capacities, attending to communal interests, and augmenting institutional processes.

Policy Recommendations

The ability of service providers to prevent crime, fear, and disorder is directly and dependently linked to MOCJ’s active support of those efforts. Further formalizing and fortifying that support should be achieved through the following policy-oriented recommendations that encourage MOCJ to:

    1. Expand Risk-Focused Services. Expand select programming to fill service gaps left by identified criminal justice system processes and to explicitly support early- stage conflict interventions;
    2. Optimize Fiscal Relationships. Better align MOCJ's annual investment in service providers to more accurately reflect the scale of the City's serviceable risk and providers' performance in remediating that risk;
    3. Lend Institutional Support. Actively leverage MOCJ’s influence to encourage greater visibility and utilization of service providers’ interventions among City agencies and the broader public; and
    4. Refine Case and Client Targeting. Refine the definition of supportable services to include the targeting of criminally involved, criminogenically influential, and other recognized vulnerable populations, as identified within the report.

Among 33 detailed action items that accompany these four recommendation themes, one specific action supports all others: namely, MOCJ should scale its historically marginal investment in and expectations of conflict intervention services from its FY2017 allocation of $1.1 million, to an annual investment of between $4.5 and $5.0 million. This level of investment would equip providers to responsively offset the criminogenic contributions from select City entities with which service providers are strongly positioned to collaborate and the risks from which their interventions are uniquely capable of counteracting.

MOCJ can further reduce crime by targeting select gaps in risk-oriented services, and by increasing its institutional support to providers, including elevating its annual investment to between $4.5 and $5.0 million.

Programmatic Recommendations

As the consequence of service provider interventions can be profound, so, too, are providers’ responsibilities to ensure their deliveries are as professional and proficient as possible. To help achieve this, a series of nine programmatic recommendations and 35 detailed action items are offered, the themes of which include:

    1. Expand Risk-Focused Services. Expand select programming to fill service gaps left by identified criminal justice processes;
    2. Assure Service Integrity. Use volunteer oversight, smart practices, and client feedback to affirm service integrity and impact;
    3. Assure Training Quality. Use pedagogical smart practices, trainee feedback, and external observers to ensure consistent training quality;
    4. Embed Prevention-Mindedness. Define and continually refine Theories of Change for how interventions mitigate risk and prevent crime;
    5. Improve Impact Monitoring. Identify, monitor, and report progress using metrics of greatest relevance to specific interventions;
    6. Institutionalize Critical Functions. Catalogue knowledge and formalize relationships to help insulate against organizational and service disruptions;
    7. Enhance Service Scalability. Refine internal processes and supplement programming to enhance efficiency and demonstrate expansion readiness;
    8. Improve Agent Care. Invest in the educational, emotional, and financial needs of staff and volunteers to fortify infrastructure and further impact; and
    9. Address ‘Last Mile’ Impediments. Actively seek new frames to understand and overcome long-standing barriers to greater public resonance and institutional utilization.

Service providers have the solemn responsibility to ensure the quality and thoughtfulness of their services mirrors the gravity of their consequence.

Research Contributions

Overall, this report makes a number of unique contributions to the NYC criminal justice system, the service providers it profiles, and the broader dispute resolution and restorative justice fields in which they operate. New discoveries uncovered as part of this evaluation and otherwise reported here for the first time are included throughout, notably:

    1. Identification of the true scope of criminal justice referral opportunities in NYC;
    2. Identification of the preferences and intensity thresholds for conflict assistance outlets;
    3. Quantification of the prevalence and proportion of victim-offender overlap in New York;
    4. Development of a method of monetizing the informal emotional labor that service providers infuse into local marketplaces;
    5. Development of an estimated rate of conflict engagement skills decay;
    6. Development of an updated estimate of the number of peer mediation programs in the U.S.; and
    7. Estimation of the rate and reach of the constructive propagation cascading forth from service providers’ interventions.

Executive Takeaways

Whether scanning or studying this report, all readers should takeaway the following broad themes. First, conflict intervention is an evidence-based, increasingly appreciated, variously effective approach to preventing crime. It embraces much of the nuance evolving research tells us effective criminal justice policy and practice ought to include, namely: individualized, early career, multi- domain, and extra-systemic interventions. Indeed, these providers have been engaging thusly well before prevention emphases were formalized and funding dependent.

Second, the scale of NYC’s aggregated criminogenic risk is orders of magnitude beyond the historically marginalized support MOCJ and others have directed toward the conflict-oriented interventions that are strongly positioned to moderate its affects. Projecting providers’ potential at this scale is not simply fanciful, it is the material of thoughtful policymaking and formative in determining the requisite investment necessary to realize such potential. Examples of providers' potential at scale – as detailed within the full report – include adding the functional equivalent of up to 400 additional NYPD patrol officers through annual time savings achieved from targeted 311 referrals; opening a new public school each year full of students’ whose educational days would not be lost to exclusionary discipline practices; preventing the return of over 10,500 offenders from future justice system contact through the use of misdemeanor mediation diversions; and preventing countless other lives and loss from the needless escalation of conflict into crime.

Finally, the apparent purgatory of precarity in which service providers have resided through assessments immemorial strains staff, frustrates volunteers, and unnecessarily constricts their preventative potential. Whether as a result of the stony stoicism of institutional gatekeepers unmoved by providers’ pleas for partnership, their perpetual financial relegation to pet or pilot statuses, or the insecurity of their very role within MOCJ itself, service providers end up contributing far more energy toward logistical and strategic uncertainties than should be reasonable or reflective of their actual performance. A meaningful divergence from this trajectory, an inflection point of institutional interest and investment would be well to be at hand. Such change is in the interests of the City, its communities, its conflicts, and the prevention of its crime.

Figure 1. Conflict Interventions by the Numbers

This visualization summarizes key figures related to service provider interventions, their impact, and opportunities. Support for each statement is fully explored and embedded within the full report text and corresponding endnotes.