Tsegaye Gebru remembers the autumn he spent sitting down with angst-filled East African teenagers. "Why do you do this?" he asked the kids, some of whom had been caught shoplifting by the police. They cried or apologized, Gebru recalled, chuckling in the Horn of Africa Services center, tucked away in an unassuming office building in Columbia City.

Gebru serves as executive director at the organization, which provides educational programs and advocates for East African immigrant and refugee families.

In 2015, Gebru and his team of case managers spent September through November ferrying 23 at-risk youth through a justice diversion program, held in partnership with the King County Juvenile Detention Center. The short-term pilot, funded by a nonrenewable $23,000 federal Justice Assistance Grant, sought to prevent first-time offenders from interacting with a justice system that disproportionately affects black youth. After three months, the funding for the program ended.

Although black youth make up the highest percentage of police referrals to the King County Prosecutor's Office—about 41 percent in 2016—they participate in diversion at far lower rates. Between 2013 and 2016, the county offered diversion to 510 black youth on average. During the same period, prosecutors referred 1,300 white youth to diversion programs.

For East African kids, language and cultural barriers hamper their chances of success in diversion, Gebru says. Parents may open mailed court documents and not understand what they're reading, or kids might throw away important documents as they would a bad report card.

On average, 300 youth—about 40 percent of whom are African American, which includes East Africans—missed out on diversion opportunities because they didn't respond to mail. Some parents "just don't know what's happening" or don't know how to talk to their kids about peer pressure or other issues going on at school.

However, partnered with Horn of Africa Services' caseworkers—many of whom speak Amharic, Oromo, and Somali—families learned how to take next steps to prevent their kids from establishing a criminal record.

To begin the diversion process, caseworkers coordinate meetings between kids and their families, as well as members of a community accountability board. The board, mostly composed of local volunteers, helps develop diversion agreements, which can require family counseling, community service hours, or drug and alcohol counseling.

Some of the support services given during the pilot program are still ongoing to help "wrap around different points" in kids' lives, Gebru said.

By the time the funding ended, 22 youths either completed or were in the process of completing their diversion programs. Just one participant failed, returning to court for prosecution. Horn of Africa Services still assists the county in youth diversion work today.

Although the partnership was temporary, juvenile court services manager Paul Daniels sees the program results as a success, showing the need for culturally competent services. He said he hopes to create expanded diversion programs to address the needs of King County's other underrepresented communities.

In June, King County Juvenile Detention Center officials secured $46,000 in funding from the county court system to launch another youth diversion program. The new pilot project, which could begin this fall, would partner with "credible messengers," community members who have "lived experience" with the justice system, Daniels said.

Similar programs are already successfully under way in South King County, where there's a growing need for diversion and prevention programs.

In July 2016, Jason Clark, who works as an equity and justice advocate for King County Superior Court, began working with the Federal Way Youth Action Team to provide outreach and support services to at-risk youth, many of whom were of African American, Latino, and Pacific Islander descent.

"When I started doing outreach in Federal Way, it was obvious that there weren't many services for young people coming in contact with the juvenile justice system," Clark said.

He made it his mission to find South King County community members who have come into contact with the justice system themselves and can empathize with struggling kids. These mentors work with kids in the Positive Outcomes and Helping Youth Perform Excellence (HYPE) programs. During these sessions, kids learn problem-solving, conflict resolution, and leadership-building skills. Kids can also learn how to cook and write résumés.

Officials with the Federal Way probation office see the HYPE program as a means of "positive intervention" to prevent youth from violating probation. By collaborating with the county court system, some kids—about 50 percent of HYPE participants—who have shown good behavior have even been released early from their probation programs, Clark said.

"When we invest in community, the result is so much greater."

More youth detention stories:

1. The Great Youth Detention Debate

2. What Will It Take to Stop Locking Up Kids?

3. Judge Roger Rogoff Has the Power to Change a Kid's Life. But Does He Have the Tools?

4. Family Matters: First It Was a Jail Wing, Then It Became a Respite Center

5. Community Roots: A Short-Lived Diversion Program Steers East African Youth Away from the Criminal Justice System

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