In a couple messy and shallow articles published several weeks ago, KUOW and the Seattle Times Editorial Board laid into King County programs designed to stop gun violence and to divert youth away from jail. Basically, the outlets argue that the county lost track of the programs, that the programs employ dangerous people, and that probation officers ran better youth diversion operations. 

However, both pieces lacked an honest assessment of the previous program’s failures as well as a clear understanding of the programs they critiqued–as the three corrections to the KUOW story attest. 

Don’t get me wrong–it’s not like there’s no room for improvement here. In a recent quarterly report to the county, the youth diversion program acknowledged the need to “reflect” on its spending practices. One nonprofit that contracts with both the gun violence prevention and diversion programs said it also wants to improve employee vetting. 

But in the articles, the outlets overstate the problems and more or less propel the interests of a group of conservative politicians with punitive legal politics who want to strangle these programs in the cradle. 

The Programs In Question 

The KUOW piece essentially makes three claims: (1) The County fails adequately to track a new youth diversion program as well as a gun violence prevention program. (2) Oversight might have prevented some of the nonprofits’ contractors from hiring people with inappropriate criminal backgrounds. (3) The County’s old juvie programs worked better.

Now, before we address these claims, we need to decode the little alphabet soup of nonprofits at issue here. 

First up, King County’s new community-based juvenile diversion program, Restorative Community Pathways (RCP). The program started in 2021 and allows King County prosecutors to divert kids arrested for juvenile misdemeanors–and some first-time felonies–to community service providers, which avoids prosecutors filing formal charges against them. 

Second, King County’s gun violence intervention program, Regional Peacekeepers Coalition (RPKC), which also started in 2021. That program contracts with service providers to track and respond to gun violence. 

Finally, Community Passageways, a nonprofit that tries to prevent youth and young adults from entering the criminal justice system, but also supports those who find themselves in the system. They contracted both with RCP and RPKC in 2022. Community Passageways maintains a contract with the peacekeepers, but it did not renew a contract with the juvenile diversion program in 2023. 

I found it hard to keep the names and initialisms straight, and I think the similarities contributed to the confusion in KUOW and Seattle Times articles, which brings us to the first claim: that the County isn’t paying attention to these programs. 

Actually, the County Does Pay Attention to These Programs

In reference to the anti-gun violence group and the juvie diversion group, KUOW says that King County knows “little of what these nonprofits do with the money they receive.” But the County knows a lot about RPKC’s work and its nonprofits. RPKC contracts with Harborview Medical Center, for instance, which King County owns. 

As an RPKC contractor, Community Passageways submits monthly and quarterly reports on the organization’s work, said Katoya Palmer, chief operating officer for the nonprofit.

The County collects data about the number of shots fired, critical incidents, and gun-violence-related injuries or fatalities. The County also gets data on the number of youth referred to appropriate services or enrolled with a care team, and also the number of households supported with wrap-around services. Community Passageways never redacts any information, Palmer said.

RCP’s nonprofits also provide quarterly reports to the County, though the nonprofits stick to sharing high-level information such as the number of prosecutor referrals in a given quarter and the total funds the nonprofits distributed.

KUOW’s article specifically derides the nonprofits working on youth diversion for a lack of program completion data. However, that data might not be particularly useful given the program’s design. The program provides youth with support for basic needs, healing opportunities, community connections, and a continuum of care, said Jasmine Vail, an RCP spokesperson. 

King County Department of Public Defense Director Anita Khandelwal said a lot of diversion programs don’t require completion, and that this program was innovative precisely because of its light touch on a kid’s life. Asking these organizations for completion data is like asking for completion data of a Boys and Girls Club afterschool program. Some youth may never go, some may go for a little while, and some may stay for a long time.

In its first year, RCP’s most recent quarterly report showed that a little more than half the youth referred to the program accepted services. The organization dispersed about $282,500 to those youths and to their families. RCP also helped the “harmed parties” in these cases, giving out about $6,200 to those people in the first year.

Prosecutors can’t yet measure the success of these programs at preventing recidivism because RCP started up just over a year ago, said Jimmy Hung, chief deputy prosecutor for the juvenile division of the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Anecdotally, Hung says his office doesn’t see a significant number of kids referred to RCP reappearing in the prosecutor’s office with new arrests.

No Oversight Leads to Sketchy Hires

KUOW’s piece also criticizes King County’s policies (or the lack thereof) around county contractors hiring people with criminal histories. Community Passageways COO Palmer pushed back directly against one part of KUOW’s reporting and said no one working for Community Passageways has an active domestic violence or other restraining order against them as of May 2023.

On the topic of nonprofits hiring people with criminal histories, KUOW’s piece focused on Community Passageway employee Khalid Adams, who worked as a credible messenger violence interrupter for the RPKC program. The term “credible messenger” refers to people with criminal histories or other experiences related to violence who then mentor others with similar backgrounds. 

Adams carried a criminal history when he joined Community Passageways, and KUOW criticizes the group for hiring him for a violence-interrupter position with RPKC when a court convicted him of felon in possession of a firearm in 2021. Then, in November 2022, prosecutors charged Adams with several felonies, including burglary. Adams entered not guilty pleas on all charges.

Still, the police report about Adams describes some concerning alleged behavior for a violence-interrupter. One witness told police Adams held a gun on the man dating Adams’s ex-girlfriend. The witness, and cousin of Adams’s ex-girlfriend, ended up shooting Adams, according to the report. KUOW identifies the 18-year-old witness as one of the “youth Community Passageways promises to help.”

Over the phone, Palmer declined to address Adams’s case beyond saying his contract as a RPKC critical incident responder meant he worked with young adults in the 18-24 year old range. Community Passageways does have background check policies for hiring employees to work with youth, but Palmer acknowledged that, overall, the nonprofit wants to improve hiring practices and accountability, which is part of why she was hired in February 2022. 

Lisa Daugaard, co-executive director at Purpose Dignity Action, helped start the County’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program. Publicly funded diversion program participants, as well as the public and public officials, are entitled to expect a high-level of performance and integrity from these programs, she said. Guarding against misconduct in community-based public safety is just as important for these programs as in other publicly funded areas, such as policing or teaching.

“At the same time, predicting the risk of any particular person based on criminal history, or lack thereof, is notoriously inaccurate… And many of those doing the best work actually reducing crime and violence have serious criminal history and have valuable skills and knowledge related to that history,” Daugaard said.

Purpose Dignity Action actively hires people with criminal histories to add value and experience to the organization, she said.

If prosecutors prove the truth of the allegations against Adams, I can understand Community Passageways needing to reevaluate criteria for credible messengers. A violence-interrupter for a gun violence prevention program getting convicted on a new firearms charge weakens the public’s trust in these programs. But KUOW’s choice to use unproven allegations against Adams in its article presumes his guilt and flattens out a complex situation into a simple narrative of bad guy versus innocent victim, which… doesn’t follow best practices.

The reporting also fails to acknowledge the role the old juvenile justice system played in increasing Adams’s chances for incarceration as an adult. Studies show most youth don’t need harsh punishments to prevent future arrests, Hung said. In fact, a long-term study of Seattle youth found “adolescents who were incarcerated were nearly four times more likely to be incarcerated in adulthood than comparable peers who were not confined.” 

Adams’s life path conforms to this statistic. King County’s failed strategy of locking up kids meant Adams celebrated his 18th birthday in jail. Prior to that, a King County court had already convicted him of four juvenile misdemeanors, including three convictions in 2000, when youth detention in the county reached a high of 205.

By the time Adams turned 19, a court sentenced him to prison, where he remained for 10 years, got out, and then went back for another five years, he told the South Seattle Emerald in April of 2022. As a youth he’d lacked food, shelter, and clothing, according to the Emerald. As an adult, he spent the majority of his life in prison. 

Community Passageways aims to prevent kids from spiraling into these sorts of incarceration cycles, but program founder Dominique Davis said he’s felt as if the program has been under attack since its inception. 

“We have been judged and ridiculed for trying to come up with answers for an oppressive system that has failed us for decades,” Davis said. 

Something Old, Nothing New, Something Borrowed, Boys in Blue

Public defense director Khandelwal echoed Davis and said she’s frustrated with the way the articles hold RCP to a different standard compared to the previous system. News outlets didn’t call for an entire “reset” of the criminal legal system or even blame juvenile probation officers for failing when kids on probation committed other crimes, Khandelwal argued. 

Nevertheless, KUOW’s article lifts up the work of juvenile probation officers under the past diversion structure: 

“Prior to the county’s Restorative Community Pathways program, lower-level juvenile crimes typically resulted in court-managed diversion that often required youth to attend school regularly, come home on time, and receive any needed mental health care or substance abuse treatment.”

Hung and Khandelwal both disagreed with this characterization. 

Community accountability boards may have imposed requirements such as attending school on time and receiving mental health care, Khandelwal said. However, mostly the court-managed diversion program was a four-hour class. Either way, “anything that has these extensive requirements is something that is setting kids up to fail,” she argued.

Plus, court-managed diversion programs used to struggle to contact eligible youths, Hung added. The cases often got sent back to prosecutors, who had the discretion to either dismiss a case or refile charges. A 2017 University of Washington study of youth diversion programs backs up Hung’s recollection.

Overall, KUOW’s story panders to probation officers who lost jobs to these alternative, community-led nonprofits and gives cover to the Seattle Times editorial board to call for a “reset” on a fledgling group of programs. It’s good for KUOW to ask for greater transparency, but the article mostly points out a lot of implementation problems, which could be relatively easy to fix compared to the systematic mistreatment, sexual abuse, and basically torture in our current system. In fact, none of the stories included in KUOW’s report show harm done to any youth diversion program participant. But we know harm happens in our youth juvenile justice system. 

By all means call for transparency and keep asking questions. But don’t pretend what existed before did anything other than traumatize children.