King County’s Juvenile Court system has an inventive way of improving the community, helping youth and saving the court’s time and money throughout the year.
The Juvenile Diversion program is a way for juvenile offenders to have their case heard in an informal setting rather than a court room. Part of the court’s Partnership for Youth Justice program, the diversion program has found success on the Eastside and in the greater Seattle area, according to program manager Shirley Noble.
The diversion program uses volunteer-based Community Accountability Boards (CABs) that oversee the case of a first- or second-time juvenile offender within their own community. The volunteers spend time with the parents and offender, asking questions before deciding on the best course of action.
“It frees up our court room to hear more serious offenses and divert these cases out to the community,” Noble said. “The huge advantage to all this is that a kid who has their case heard in the community as opposed to a court room will walk away without a criminal record, and that’s huge for young people.”
The CAB volunteers determine the overall outcome of the case after a 40-minute interview process.
The informal hearings take place in the evening so the children and parents aren’t pulled away from school and work. The volunteers also have a full spectrum of options and sanctions that are available in a court room.
“We feel like they need to be held accountable for what they do, but at the same time, does that kid need to start off their life with a criminal record?” Noble said. “And [volunteers] hear cases of kids who live in their community, so it doesn’t matter where the kid committed the crime, it’s where they live that the cases will be heard. It’s about having the community involved with what happens to kids in that community.”
CABs have a certified official present to act as a legal adviser and ensure the process is legal.
This process is an alternative parents can choose that prevents their child offender from creating a criminal record and often successfully diverts them from future criminal activity. At the end of the hearing, the child signs a diversion contact that they must follow and, according to Noble, about 98 percent of children comply with the contract.
For those who fail to uphold the contract, their cases are kicked back to the prosecutor’s office which decides further action.
There are about 14 CABs in King County that serve specific communities including in Redmond, Bellevue, Issaquah and on the Island. These boards serve more than just their own cities and Noble has also integrated a “Latino CAB”, which she says has increased the participation of Spanish-speaking locals by 75 to 80 percent.
“Within months we started to see the increase in engagement,” Noble said, “because the comfort level of having — instead of someone speaking English and [struggling] to communicate with you from the courts — a person calling you in your own language, helping you understand what your kid is involved in, what diversion is all about and walking you through the whole process.”
Noble added that she wants to integrate an East African CAB in 2019.
The CABs in place today stem from a 1959 program that began when Renton locals wanted to get involved with what happens to local children who get in trouble. The pilot program was successful and in 1978 the state mandated all first-time juvenile offenders have the informal hearing option.
About 95 percent of offenders adhere to the contract they sign, Noble said.
Many of the volunteers have been with the program for more than 20 years and as many as 40 years. Generally, they enjoy the opportunity to help the youth of their communities.
“It makes me feel really wonderful, and most of the parents are very grateful for our time,” said Cookie Schlocker, a longtime volunteer. “Some of the parents even volunteer with the program after going through it with their kids.”
Schlocker is a Sammamish resident who has been volunteering for the Redmond CAB over the past 28 years. She said she was inspired to volunteer after noticing a large amount of juvenile crime in the community while her children were in junior high school.
According to Schlocker, the process works well because it allows the children to open up and teaches them about real-life consequences. The juvenile offenders have confidentiality with the CAB, who talks with them and their parents separately.
“I enjoy having the kids open up to us,” Schlocker said. “It creates a trust between us and lets them to be honest about their feelings and what led them to do whatever it was they did. Many of the kids cry, even the boys because they get very emotional and they’re very thankful for this process.”
Schlocker noted the program has been shrinking somewhat over the years and she doesn’t want to see it ever disappear. Despite the overall size of the program, Noble said she has never been short on volunteers because many volunteers never leave the program.
“The community needs to be involved because I think there’s a lack of connection within the community and specifically the juvenile court system,” Noble said. “I think that connection is huge and then the fact that people want to be involved. They want to do this, they want to help and they want to feel like they’re giving back to the community, which is what they are doing with these young people.”