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Youth jail, restorative justice
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Could ‘peace circles’ replace youth jails in King County?

A King County youth jail proposal in Seattle has been gaining opposition. (Steven Depolo, Flicker)

Jimmy Hung is a juvenile court prosecutor in King County. He’s tired of sending kids to jail, and he thinks he has an alternative — restorative justice.

RELATED: Controversial youth jail in King County

“It’s taking a concept that when a young person commits a harm in our community, instead of our traditional system of spending our resources labeling the harm – which is what we do in our current system … what restorative justice does, is it gets to the heart of it and says, ‘Alright, you committed a harm. Let’s get past that. How are you going to fix it? How are you going to repair that harm? How are you going to return back into the community and become a positive member of the community?’” Hung told KIRO Radio’s Ron and Don. “… in restorative justice we try to get to the accountability as soon as possible.”

“(Incarceration) doesn’t work that often,” he said. “I think there are quite a bit of studies out there that show when you incarcerate young people, they don’t come out better like we would hope they would. They often times come out worse.”

Hung has created waves saying that “we can’t just keep doing what we’ve been doing.” It’s a sentiment that comes as some argue that King County’s current youth jail is inadequate, and others argue that the juvenile court system is not working altogether.

While he was briefly acting as Seattle mayor, Council President Bruce Harrell signed an executive order that could affect plans for a new $210 million youth jail in the city. It orders officials to seek out various smaller facilities as alternatives to the jail and shifts the city’s policy of incarcerating youth to a restorative justice model. King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski supports such policies.

It’s a direction that Hung would like the county to follow.

Restorative justice

Hung is not working in theory. He has recently used a restorative justice model and would like to expand it. It starts with a “peace circle.” It sounds corny; sessions start with burning sage and continue with the use of a talking stick, The Seattle Times reports.

“The first young man through the program, he spent eight months with folks from the community we partnered with … it’s really a bunch of community and concerned citizens who volunteered their time to wrap themselves around a family that needed their support,” Hung said.

The teenager he is referring to committed multiple robberies as part of a gang initiation when he was 15. He was ordered to spend three hours at a time, sitting in the peace circle, talking about the crime and the harm caused. But it went further. They talked about challenges, struggles and other circumstances in the young person’s life. And they discussed how to reconcile what he had done. Hung says the teen became empathetic to his victims and wrote an apology letter. He read the letter in open court.

The prosecutor, judge, community members, and the teen, then talked about the court’s response. Rather than spend two years in a youth jail, the young man’s charge was reduced to two misdemeanors. He received a deferred sentence with 100 hours of community service.

“He plowed through that community service in one year,” Hung said. “I’m happy to say he graduated from high school. He’s enrolling in South Seattle Community College. He just finished an internship with the King County executive. Probably, what he’s most proud of is that he just bought his first car.”

It’s one example of an offender who came out the other side of a system that Hung says many youths get caught up in. He would like to stop a cycle of crime at the start when people are young.

“Don’t get me wrong, I think there are young people who face challenges and are engaging in behavior that is so dangerous and violent that we may have to resort to our regular forms of justice,” he said. “But I think, for a lot of the young people who end up in our juvenile justice system, we can be smarter about how we address their needs. It’s beneficial to the young people and their families, and it’s a community safety benefit.”

“The one person we put through the peace circle process, we are a safer community now because he did that,” Hung said. “He is going to be a leader in our community; I’m certain of it. And I think if we put him through the normal system, given what I’ve seen of the juvenile justice system and the criminal justice system, I’m not convinced he would have come out as an asset to our community. And he’s an asset now.”

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