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Law enforcement, prosecutors key to juvenile justice reforms in King County

Officer Cripe next to his patrol car. (KIRO Radio, Hanna Scott)

What’s the solution when gang violence, drugs, theft, robbery, and a variety of smaller crimes are committed by kids?

For decades, the answer was locking them up, but in recent years the tide has shifted with more investments into programs that offer second, third, and even more chances to help those kids adjust course.

In King County, millions of dollars are being invested in alternatives to lock up juveniles.

Community groups, nonprofits, mentors, courts, drug and mental health counselors, prosecutors, and many others are working behind the scenes daily to help kids that touch the county’s criminal justice system at every level find a new path.

Des Moines Police Officer Justin Cripe says law enforcement has a huge role to play.

“Building a bridge and trust between uniform police and youth from an early age,” Cripe said.

It can mean anything from engaging with kids in the community as a patrol officer to Cripe’s earlier work as a School Resource Officer.

“They can see us interacting with them in a means that’s every day, it doesn’t have to be criminal.” Cripe said.

Cripe uses that same philosophy now as a patrol officer and in his work with gang intervention. It’s helped him build relationships with kids over the years who come to him with problems, call on him if they get in trouble, and most importantly, who are open to listening to him about making better choices

“It’s not all sunshine and rainbows,” Cripe said. “There are kids that unfortunately, you go from seeing in a hallway and smiling and high-fiving to seeing a murder charge come down on them.”

However, there are many others who get their lives on track.

“The good definitely outweighs the bad,” Cripe said. “That’s why I continue to do the work that I’m doing because if I can change the life of one child and make them successful in any means that I can, I’ve had success.”

Officer discretion plays a big part in keeping kids out of the system. When kids are arrested, Jimmy Hung at the King County Prosecutor’s juvenile division takes over and, along with his team, decides whether to file charges or find another route to accountability, such as diversion.

“What many of us who have been doing this for a long time are starting to realize is that when people commit crimes, there needs to be more than a one-size-fits-all response, especially when you’re talking about young people,” Hung said.

Under state law, every kid arrested for a first-time misdemeanor is sent to a diversion program that, if completed, keeps the charges from being filed. A second minor offense gets sent to a second level of diversion under the county’s standards.

“Ultimately, you can have no history, but if you commit a rape or a murder or something like that then we’re filing that case,” Hung said.

When more serious offenses are involved, it gets more complicated.

“I think there are certainly circumstances and there continue to be, sadly, where people in our community commit such harm where there just has to be straight punishment,” Hung said. “I think the best thing for our community is to remove them from the community for a time.”

Under the county’s current system, juvenile offenders for most first-time felony offenses can get a chance at keeping that off their record even after they’ve been charged. They must take part in community support services and meeting conditions set by the court in what’s known as the CEDAR program. If the child completes the requirements, their charges can be reduced or tossed altogether.

Those charged with felonies like rape, murder, and kidnapping are not eligible. First-time offenders charged with felonies like assault, robbery, car theft, and illegal possession of a firearm are eligible.

“When faced with the option of locking up a young person for a short amount of time, like 30 days, it’s not very attractive when we have all these other options of holding kids accountable by connecting them with people in the community, holding them accountable by helping them find a way to get back in school,” Hung explained. “That, to me, is a form of accountability as well for when you do something wrong it’s not just the stick all the time. Sometimes the carrot is just as effective.”

It’s about taking a chance on doing things differently to get to better outcomes.

“When we look at all the different challenges that face young people growing up in our society these days and then also the inherent societal problems that people deal with, especially minority communities or communities that come from more poverty and things like that, there’s just all these challenges that are baked into their very existence where if you just have a response of we’re just going to be punitive, it’s not going to be effective,” Hung said.

That’s because no child can be locked up for life. Every child is going to eventually be released back into society, regardless of how serious the crime.

“So when they do come back into our community, we have to ask ourselves what do we want them to be like?” Hund explained. “How do we want them to have the tools so that they’re not harming other people? Oftentimes, the best way to do that is to keep them out of juvenile detention, keep them out of our state institutions, and do things like connect them with community support.”

Hung says research shows community based accountability is effective, and he’s seeing it work with kids involved in Peace Circles willing to leave the gang life.

Hung admits it doesn’t always go that way.

“Unfortunately, I made a decision where we took a chance with a young person and he ended up taking the life of another person,” Hung said.

Even with that outcome, Hung stands by his position.

“If someone asked me, ‘Do you think a young person would be more or less likely to commit a crime after going through the traditional court system versus some alternative?’ I would put my money, every time, on the traditional court system where that kid would be more likely to commit a crime,” Hung said.

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