Commentary: What Everett is missing in how to deal with gangs

A recent policy memo fails to note research on effective methods for working with young offenders.

By Kathleen Kyle, Liz Mustin and Riall Johnson

For The Herald

A Jan. 9 article in The Herald, “Policy memo: Everett needs changes on juvenile, gang justice,” reported on a policy memo regarding juvenile violence that was submitted to Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin. Mayor Franklin has placed juvenile justice concerns among her priorities, and this is admirable.

She should rightly consider diverse viewpoints when determining policy, but the viewpoints the mayor considers should be based in fact and not in fear. Research has found that the policy’s memo recommendations for longer sentences and increased bail are counterproductive to efforts to make our community safer and promote equality in the justice system.

The city’s three-page memorandum is largely unsupported by evidence. It lacks information regarding its authors and their credentials and the underlying data and research upon which its assertions might be based. Volumes of public policy studies, academic literature and legislative research contradict the memo’s conclusions, finding instead that lengthening youth incarceration — and even short-term detention — can increase risk levels with court-involved youth.

Instead, studies show that pretrial diversion programs and other alternatives to youth incarceration are more effective in reducing the risk to public safety — and more effective in rehabilitating the youthful offender — than are detention and imprisonment. Our state Legislature recognized the efficiency of increasing alternatives for juveniles when it expanded diversion programs statewide this past year. Everett’s policy-makers must understand that the incarceration approach championed in the policy memo will perpetuate current problems, not solve them.

Problems related to our juvenile justice system certainly do exist, but they are not the problems outlined in the memo.

A significant problem in Snohomish County is the disproportionate treatment of youth of color by our juvenile justice system. Youth of color are likely to receive more detention time and less likely to be offered the opportunity for diversion options for the same underlying behavior as their white peers. The reasons for this disparity are many, but they are rooted in a history of systemic racial bias. This history creates what researchers call “implicit bias,” an intellectual recognition that deeply rooted and largely negative underlying assumptions, attitudes and stereotypes regarding minorities manifest in our individual perspectives and decisions in ways that we accept without reflection. Recognizing the existence of implicit bias and making sure youth of color have equal access to participate in restorative programs is the right path forward to seeing a continued reduction in the rate of crime.

One measure taken by the Snohomish County Juvenile Court to address implicit bias was the convening of the Cultural Advisory Committee. This committee is charged with the responsibility of reducing disparate outcomes for minorities and recommending ways to promote equity and fairness within juvenile court. This group holds regular meetings. The Herald’s coverage of the policy memo was the topic of a January meeting. Committee Member Riall Johnson, a graduate of Mariner High School and Stanford University, expressed his concern regarding the tone and conclusions of the city’s memo:

“I feared for my community when I received it. I have seen this before, and it led to policies like the crime bills in the ’90s. I graduated from Mariner High School in 1996. I remember what it was like when I was one of these ‘juveniles’ that this memo is trying to label, when we had more aggressive school policies that prohibited us from wearing sports gear from teams with black colors. No more British Knights or Calvin Klein apparel, and kids of color weren’t allowed to stand together is groups of three or more. Then came the increase in profiling and arrests of my friends, where I witnessed kids around me get hardened and traumatized by the criminal justice system.”

This perspective and others like it are clearly not represented in the city’s memo. The memo and The Herald’s article ignore the countervailing conclusions from empirical research. The city’s proposed solutions will do little more than perpetuate systemic racism. We must do better than this.

A trauma-informed approach is far more effective model. It’s a model that identifies risk factors that make juveniles vulnerable to criminal behavior and then seeks to alleviate those risks. Everett’s policy initiatives should align with this more effective and enlightened approach. The focus should be on the root causes of youth crime, not blaming them for the risks their communities present to them. Access to guns and victimization are risk factors; they are not problems created by youth.

We are the attorneys who represent juveniles accused of crimes. We read reports in which police vilify these kids and subject them to increased scrutiny based on a “gang-involved” label, which too often is little more than a euphemism for their race, neighborhood, surname or shirt color. The children we see have faced obstacles that many of us never even consider. They are vulnerable and resilient; sometimes stubborn, but often inspiring. They are not predators. If the juvenile justice system recognizes that these kids that are still growing and developing, their community must as well. They have infinite potential for success.

Everett’s city staff would be welcome to attend the Snohomish County Cultural Advisory Committee. These are your local professionals working directly with court-involved youth. Use them to help address your concerns. The group meets on the second Thursday of every month from noon to 1 p.m. at the Denney Juvenile Justice Center.

Kathleen Kyle and Liz Mustin are attorneys with the Snohomish County Public Defender Association. Riall Johnson is the managing director of Prism Washington, a consulting group focused on social justice, and a member of the Snohomish County Cultural Advisory Committee.

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