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King County, Washington, is pushing counseling and diversion programs and considering closing its juvenile detention facility.
In the early 2000s, a Seattle detention facility for youth offenders was packed. Every day, more than 200 juveniles were incarcerated. “We used to have to double bunk them,” said Jimmy Hung, chief deputy prosecutor of King County, Washington’s juvenile division. But after the county started sending more young offenders to counseling than to detention—believing it would give them a better path in life—that number dropped dramatically.
On Monday, in a county with 2.3 million people, only 44 young people were locked up. And King County Executive Dow Constantine has said he wants to go even further and bring that number to zero.
Constantine in 2021 set a goal of diverting youthful offenders and closing the county’s juvenile detention center by 2025 in part because while 23.6% of those in detention between January and June 2016 were white, 45% were Black.
“Redemption begins by shifting public dollars away from systems that are rooted in oppression and into those that maintain public health and safety, and help people on a path to success,” Constantine tweeted not long after George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police.
It remains to be seen if the county will go as far as Constantine proposed. A task force is working with the county’s Department of Community and Human Services to make recommendations to the county council by the end of the year. “I don’t know,” Hung, who serves on the task force, said when asked if the group will propose closing the county’s lone juvenile detention center.
But regardless of what the county decides to do, a $1 million grant last month from the federal government will boost its efforts to find alternatives to detaining youths.
The grant, which was part of the $4.4 billion in funding the Justice Department recently awarded to jurisdictions to help them “implement innovative recidivism-reduction policies, practices and programming,” under a program called Restorative Community Pathways, the department said.
According to data released by King County last September, young first offenders arrested for low-level crimes are less likely to reoffend if they are given counseling and support like food and housing rather than being thrown behind bars.
Between Nov. 1, 2021, and Aug. 18, 2022, only 12 of the 145 youths participating in the county’s diversion program, or just 8%, were accused of new crimes. Over the same period, 47, or over a fifth of the 233 juveniles who were detained, were charged again with new crimes.
“The good news is that 90% of the time, we don't see those kids ever again,” Hung said. States that offer alternatives to detaining juveniles have had similar results, according to a study last August by The Sentencing Reform, a national advocacy organization.
South Dakota’s 2015 reforms required diversions for non-violent misdemeanors. That led to a 43% increase in youths being diverted between 2017 and 2021, the Sentencing Project study said.
Despite the changes being made in some areas, the percentage of youths who are diverted in the nation has “remained flat for a generation,” staying at around 46% between 1996 and 2019, the Sentencing Project study said.
In addition, the report noted that white youths are far more likely to avoid being imprisoned. In 2019, 52% of white youths convicted of crimes nationally were sent to diversion programs instead of being detained, compared to only 40% of the cases involving Black youth.
How Things Work
Washington state’s legislature opened the door to King County’s reforms in 2018 when it eliminated a limit on the number of juvenile misdemeanor offenders local prosecutors could divert. It also allowed local prosecutors for the first time to divert less serious felonies.
When county prosecutors decide not to take juvenile offenders to court and recommend a diversion program instead, the young people are sent to one of several community organizations the county works with.
Staff running the programs tell the participants, “You’ve got to go to school every day. You’ve got to engage in counseling,” Hung said in an interview.
But “first and foremost,” he said, the community groups make sure basic needs are being met by offering help with housing and food.
“In Seattle, you have kids who are homeless. Kids who don't even have food on the table,” Hung said. “If those basic needs aren’t being met, there's no chance of engaging them in doing all the other stuff that we would like them to do,” he said.
Once basic needs are addressed, counselors can start working with the young people to get them back in school, attend workshops or connect them with mentors and substance abuse and mental health services if they need it. For 14 weeks, participants attend workshops.
But in many cases, said Johnny Walker, Jr., program manager for one of the community organizations, Choose 180, outreach workers have to go looking for the youth.
“That is a little challenging because when kids and young adults get arrested, they don't want you to have their real information. So you may get a fake address or phone number,” he said.
“We try to track them down before they either get another charge or before they miss this opportunity. So we do the footwork,” Walker said.
Once they’re found, the counselors try to connect with young people and help them understand that “you're going to make mistakes. We live in a world where we're able to make mistakes. But how do we bounce back from those mistakes and what to do to avoid making the mistake moving forward?”
The first step, he said, is “building trust. At the end of the day, if they don't trust you, you're not going to get anywhere with them.”
Young offenders “want to be able to connect with somebody that can relate to a story and has a similar story” of mistakes and recovery, he said.
Walker can relate. “When I was an adolescent and I was running the streets … what I needed was a mentor. I needed somebody that had some positivity because I didn't have that positivity around me,” he said.
He was struggling after his mother died.
However, a woman who worked with him at a community center saw his potential. “She pushed me.”
After beginning to work with youths at Choose 180, Walker said he met a girl who had lost her father to gun violence. “So she struggled,” Walker said.
“She always wanted to get out of the streets.” She was bullied but also bullied others, he said.
However, she played basketball. Walker talked to a community college basketball coach. “The coach was willing to work with her. The teammates embraced her. She has two kids now and she's working. She's doing her thing.”
Under the program, aftercare counselors continue working with the young people even after they’ve completed their diversion program requirements. A 14-week diversion program can help young people make better choices, but it can’t change childhood trauma, homelessness or food insecurity.
“No workshop alone is going to change everything,” Walker said. “The last thing we want is for us to move on, and take our hands off because we didn't expect a relapse. And then you're back in a situation where they're trying to fight another charge,” he said.
But what happens if they commit another crime?
Hung said prosecutors treat cases individually, so “the reality of success is very different for every young person.”
If a young person, for example, is rearrested for stealing a sandwich from a Safeway, he said, prosecutors will consult with the offender’s original community support group.
If counselors say, “We're really working with his family. We talked to the kid and he was hungry and he didn't have any money for food, so he stole the sandwich,” Hung said prosecutors could again send the teen to diversion instead of to detention.
Rethinking Juvenile Justice
Hung said his thoughts about juvenile justice have changed over the years.
When he started as a prosecutor of juvenile crimes 11 years ago, “it was very obvious to me that we're just basically treating these [cases] like smaller versions of adult court, where kids who made bad decisions are criminalized,” he said.
But he pointed to research that has shown that juvenile offenders are more likely to commit more crimes if they are incarcerated, Hung said. Detaining them “puts the stigma on them and then damages self-esteem and self-confidence,” he said.
Hung thinks about those he imprisoned before his perspective changed. He said it’s “been a hard pill to swallow—to find out that as a prosecutor, in many instances, I've caused more harm than good. All the studies say that once a kid walks through the front doors of a juvenile courthouse, they are likely to end up worse.”
Not being able to send youths to diversion programs “was like doubling down on something that wasn't effective,” he said. “If this kid is homeless and doesn't have food, a prosecutor in a suit and a judge in a robe is not going to make a difference in that kid's life unless we can give them housing and give them food.”
But Should They Close the Center?
Regardless of whether the county ultimately decides to close its juvenile detention facility, the federal grant will be used to “deepen engagement for young people and families,” said Jennifer Hill, King County’s youth services coordinator. The county will also be examining what has been working and developing partnerships to better meet the needs of the juvenile offenders. The county also plans to explore options for reforming the juvenile justice system, she said.
Constantine’s tweet announcing his plan, however, immediately brought pushback. “What about the 13-year-old who shot a man in the back of the head a couple of months ago? Where would you put him?” one local Republican leader responded.
While the county has not said it intends to free juveniles who have committed serious crimes like murder, the answer to that question remains unclear.
Even some advocates of providing diversion services for young offenders instead of incarcerating them, like Hung and Walker, are unsure about closing the county’s detention center.
Walker said he feels “50/50” about the idea. On one hand, he said, the adolescents need help. “Our young people don’t necessarily have the mental capacity and the maturity to know that this is what you did, and this is the consequence.” Plus, an environment of poverty and racism can nurture criminal behavior. That makes diversion a good option.
But on the other hand, “if it's a serious offense—like you murder somebody or armed robbery—I definitely think they need to be detained.” If the county closes its juvenile detention facility, “and we do have repeat offenders then when do we do?”
Hung hopes society may one day be able to provide the services to keep youths from committing serious crimes. But it's not going to happen by 2025,” he said.
“We're still going to need a detention facility. We have a community that is littered with guns everywhere, and young people who don't have good guidance,” he said. They “get their hands on guns and make bad decisions,” he added.
No matter what the county ends up deciding, Hung acknowledged there will be complaints.
Protesters including the local Black Lives Matter organization have demanded the facility be closed, but some residents will say a juvenile detention facility is necessary to keep the community safe.
Others see the diversion programs as ineffective solutions, “saying it’s just putting lipstick on a pig,” Hung said.
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty, covering Congress and federal policy. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @Kery_Murakami