How King County works to keep juvenile offenders on the right path
In King County there are an estimated 5,000 kids and young adults who belong to upwards of 90 gangs.
Those gangs are more than happy to fill the gap left for kids who don’t feel connected to family, school, or community for a variety of reasons.
County and community groups try to counter that with a variety of programs that work to intervene both before and after kids get into the gang life or in trouble with the law. That includes the Youth, Leadership, Intervention & Change program, commonly known as Youth LINC.
This is a specialized team with gang intervention training, composed of cops, street outreach workers, case managers, employment specialists, faith-based groups, juvenile parole and probation counselors, and Michelle Mihail from the county’s Renton juvenile probation office.
The goal is similar to the work she does in her everyday probation job.
“Hopefully to work together to reduce any exposure to gang violence, or group violence, and also to hopefully reduce their involvement in the criminal justice – or the juvenile justice system, and then get them working and going to school and doing really pro-social activities,” Mihail said.
The team can be assigned to intervene with a kid not even in the system yet, but just considered at risk. Or, after the kid has already been in trouble.
As part of the day I spent with Michelle, we met with members of the LINC team she’s part of, and a kid who had just been released from a state juvenile rehabilitation facility. He was very heavily involved in a local gang, and it wasn’t his first time in lockup, something he admits he used to see as a badge of honor.
“I felt like I was the dude, I felt like I was a man in jail, you know,” he recalled.
On this day, we sat in the room with him — who we can’t identify for his protection — his mom, and three members of his LINC team who are getting him re-engaged with the Youth LINC program now that he is out of lockup.
He’s been through it before. He had a mentor and other resources, including a close relationship with Des Moines Police Officer Justin Cripe, who is now on his LINC team, but originally got to know him as a School Resource Officer about five years ago.
He remembers it was Officer Cripe whose patrol car he was in the back of when he got arrested the first time several years ago for tagging.
“I was a little dude, I was 13. I was young. He just gave me a talk about ‘you shouldn’t do this because this is going to happen, and this will happen’, you know?” the teen described
It was an early warning from Officer Cripe to try to help the kid correct course way back then.
“We had had a chat about decisions and how decisions compound and things can follow you,” Cripe said.
That chat didn’t work, but it planted a seed that helped their relationship develop overtime.
“I felt what he was saying, you know? I was just still a youngster,” the teen explained.
“I thought about it, like out of all the cops he’s the cool one, you know? Every time I saw him I would say what’s up to him. I’m not supposed to do that, but he’s different,” he continued, explaining how he wasn’t supposed to talk to cops as a gang member.
After that, he was assigned to Michele for probation and eventually she, Officer Cripe, and others on the Youth LINC team developed an intensive plan and resources to try to get him to change course, including in-home family therapy.
He ended up getting arrested again, this time on a much more serious charge. He did more time in the state facility, but this time when he got out, he competed his parole conditions, and was focused on going straight and staying in school.
Things went south when he met an older girl not long after that.
“She was like just a little bit and every little bit just started becoming every day … started messing with the drugs. I started selling and stuff, I just got into it. The number one rule – you’re not supposed to smoke your own supply,” he explained.
“I was smoking it, I went on the run, when Michelle [Mihail] caught me slipping she caught me at my house,” he said.
He hadn’t been home or at school, a violation of probation, which meant an end to his suspended sentence on an earlier conviction. A warrant had been issued for his arrest. His mom convinced him to come by the house, coordinating with Mihail behind the scenes who would be at the house to get him to turn himself in.
The teen didn’t want to turn himself in at first. He was eventually convinced he couldn’t run forever, and agreed to let Mihail drive him to detention.
“This was one of those times where we intentionally used detention because his drug use was in such a way that it was life threatening,” Mihail explained.
“We wanted to be sure that we could get him safe and sober for a little bit, so we could try again,” she added.
Mihail took him to detention, and he served several months and got clean. He’d only been out a few days when I met him, and had just turned 18 days a few days earlier. That’s something he is keenly aware of as he again commits to a gang and crime-free life.
He believes he has the tools and support to succeed.
“They’ve always been there, I just didn’t use them. It’s different now, I’m older now. That’s the main thing that’s in my mind. I’m 18, you know? It’s not going to be no six, seven months [sentences] no more. It’s going to be six or seven years, or more,” he pointed out.
“I’ve got friends who are already wearing jerseys. I look at that and I don’t want to be like that. That’s the only thing my parents worry about – they look at my friends catching all these murder charges and they’re like, ‘we don’t want you to be next,’ because I was close last time,” he continued.
Over the years, he has developed a strong bond and respectful and trusting relationship with Mihail, Cripe and everyone on his Youth LINC team as they put all the resources in front of him to help get him out of gang life and change his behavior.
“It means a lot, but at the time though I thought they were just buggin,” he noted. “I just thought they were trying to be on my case and stuff. Looking at it now, I’m like damn, I should’ve used it. I still can, hopefully, if I just put my mind to it and I don’t mess up again.”
Is he sure he won’t mess up again?
“I can’t promise that but I’m going to try to … that’s the thing, I’m gonna try.”