Juvenile Diversion is a way for a young person to take responsibility for his or her actions without going through the traditional criminal justice system (including court and possibly jail). Successfully completing juvenile diversion avoids a conviction appearing on his or her permanent criminal record.
That’s important. Research shows that, compared to processing youths through the traditional criminal justice system, juvenile diversion provides a net social benefit in the form of crime reduction. Of course, that’s also a huge benefit for the young individuals and families who go through juvenile diversion.
Diversion works. But in King County, we always want to know how things can work better.
Recently, Marcus Stubblefield, a Systems Integration Coordinator with King County who works largely with the King County Youth Services Center, has been talking with the youth and families who have participated in diversion in order to find out how the diversion has worked for them and what could be improved to better serve the people using it.
“We wanted to understand their experience,” Stubblefield explains, “because that is very different from saying, ‘We’re doing great.'”
In the diversion process, youths do not go to court and there is no trial. Instead, the youth and his or her family meet with a volunteer Community Accountability Board (CAB).
The CAB makes no findings of innocence or guilt. After participating in diversion, a youth may truthfully say that they have not been convicted of a crime.
In his conversations with parents and youths who have completed diversion, and even some who were eligible but opted not to participate, Stubblefield saw certain themes stand out in the answers. Two were very positive:
People are Grateful for Diversion
As one parent said to Stubblefield, “Boy, am I thankful for diversion! Kids make some stupid decisions and don’t deserve a [permanent] criminal record.”
Staff are Providing Excellent Service
“People were overwhelmingly positive about our staff,” Stubblefield reports. “They said staff were helpful and went out of their way to help.”
An Opportunity to Better Serve Youth and Families
However, Stubblefield also saw a major opportunity for improvement by listening to families. Participants in juvenile diversion expressed a desire for greater responsiveness to underserved families in the process, including more diversity represented on the Community Accountability Board. One youth put it, “I felt like I was explaining myself to an audience that couldn’t understand my situation.”
Stubblefield learned that the process was often difficult to navigate and less responsive for families from our immigrant communities, our families with limited English, and our communities of color throughout King County. For example, members of the Somali community faced significant language and cultural barriers in accessing juvenile diversion.
Barriers like those may be why some of those eligible for juvenile diversion do not enroll in juvenile diversion. To emphasize the point: when youths eligible for diversion opt out, that risks a net social loss for everyone in King County in addition to worse outcomes for those youth and their families.
One parent who faced such challenges helpfully suggested a support network to help navigate the process or “someone to walk through the process with me.”
So what is King County doing about it?
With direct focus on the diversity challenges he heard from some families, Stubblefield and other stakeholders have formed a partnership with Horn of Africa, a non-profit that serves the East African immigrant and refugee community in Seattle, to provide a supporting network for youths and parents going through juvenile diversion.
In just a few months, Horn of Africa has helped nine youths and their families through the diversion process. Nearly a dozen more have been referred to Horn of Africa for support through the process.
Plans are in the works to create similar support networking for Spanish-speaking participants.
Stubblefield has also been recruiting more CAB volunteers to better represent the diversity of King County.
“My whole job is reforming the system, to start with what isn’t working and to make it better,” Stubblefield says. “My ultimate role is diverting young people from the criminal justice system, to make sure that the young people who qualify for diversion have access to it, understand it, and can succeed through it.”