When you talk about juvenile justice with Sean Goode, be prepared to throw out the whole way you think about law and order, crime and punishment or what it means to pay your debt to society.
For him, life is a series of opportunities and choices, forks in the road and what he calls “pivot moments.”
He’s more interested in what those who’ve gotten into trouble owe to themselves as they plan a better future.
The national conversation about inequities in the criminal justice system has led us to our own potential pivot moment when it comes to how we conceive of justice itself, especially when offenders are juveniles and young adults.
Community-based approaches aimed at steering young people down the path of personal responsibility and redemption — rather than criminal charges and jail time — fall under the umbrella of a concept known as “restorative justice.”
It’s a politically tricky issue, though.
Last fall, King County Executive Dow Constantine pledged $4 million to support diversionary programs that work with young offenders in a bid to reduce the county’s juvenile detention population from a typical daily range of 40 or 50 to zero. But his announcement came as the county was building a controversial $232 million facility that will contain a 112-bed youth detention center.
People like Goode, executive director of a diversion program called Choose 180, stand at the forefront of the movement to address concerns at the grassroots level about unnecessary incarceration, while working with public officials to prove the value of alternatives to prisons.
Launched under a slightly different name in 2011 by Pastor Doug Wheeler, a longtime leader in Seattle’s African American community, Choose 180 originally partnered with the King County prosecutor’s office to help teens ages 13 to 17 who had committed misdemeanor crimes.
The program has since expanded to offer workshops for young adults ages 18 to 24 who’ve committed misdemeanors. The Seattle City Attorney’s office uses the young-adult program. King County plans to add it this year.
In 2018, Choose 180 also started a diversion program for middle- and high-school students in the Highline School District who are on track to being suspended or expelled, or who’ve been exhibiting behaviors that could lead in that direction.
Goode, 37, has grown the nonprofit since starting there in 2017 from one with a $150,000 annual budget and himself as the sole employee to an organization with a $950,00 budget and nine paid staff.
The programs for juvenile and young-adult offenders work like this: Instead of being charged right away after an arrest for a misdemeanor such as low-level theft, property destruction, obstruction or trespassing, offenders who’ve been screened for eligibility receive an invitation to attend a four-hour Saturday afternoon workshop hosted by Goode and his team.
There, they listen to moving stories from adults of different cultural backgrounds who got into trouble when they were teens. Then the workshop breaks into small-group discussions where participants can talk about what they learned and ways to avoid problem behaviors in the future.
I attended three of the workshops last year, at Goode’s invitation.
One by one, speakers stood in front of the group and described the moment they took a 180-degree turn by deciding to make better choices.
Choose 180 surrounds young people with what Goode calls a “community of support,” but it doesn’t send people away with easy answers, grand promises or magic formulas. What it offers them is a view of their own experience seen through the lens of people who’ve been there before, and who look like them.
It gives them license to imagine a life different from the one they’ve been living.
Goode, a charismatic public speaker, tells his own intensely personal story during the workshop of growing up as an African American kid in the South End. He recounts the domestic violence he witnessed at home, how a brother who’d served time in prison helped steer him in the right direction. It’s powerful stuff.
“I never go to one of those workshops without some tissue in my pocket,” said King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, a friend of Wheeler’s and a backer of Choose 180 from the beginning. “We can’t compete with the personal, profound stories of redemption and reconciliations.”
At the end of the workshop, an attorney from the prosecutor’s office will decline the charges for each offender. Choose 180 follows up with participants to make sure they have the encouragement and resources they need to stay out of trouble.
To Goode’s mind, the juvenile-justice system as we’ve known it has a central flaw.
“It’s not tailored to meet specific needs,” he said. “It’s tailored to meet general needs.”
But the justice system ideally should account for the lives of the individuals who are accused as well as the realities that surround them.
I started to learn more about restorative justice and diversion programs for young people several years ago, at the height of the national conversation about mass incarceration. The worrying reality is that African Americans make up about a third of inmates in federal, state and local prisons, despite being only 12% of the U.S. population. Black children represent about a third of juvenile arrests and more than 40% of juvenile detentions nationwide.
In King County, the racial disparities are even more glaring.
At any given time, African Americans represent nearly 40% of the King County Jail’s adult population, despite representing only 6.8% of the county’s population. Black youth make up about 45% of the juvenile detention population on any given day, but they’re only about 10% of the county’s children between ages 10 and 17.
King County defines restorative justice as an approach that encourages offenders to hold themselves accountable by understanding the harm they’ve caused to victims and taking responsibility for their actions, with the ultimate goal of increasing public safety. It’s also seen as a way to address historical disparities and present-day bias in the system.
“Restorative justice is really meant to be a community-based, familial process with principles guiding it that are defined by the community — rather than a rubber-stamp approach applied by the dominant culture,” says Jessalyn Nash, a prominent restorative-justice advocate and trainer based in California.
Turning around young people at the misdemeanor stage with solutions that don’t involve courts and prisons, at a time in their lives when they’re still developing decision-making skills, is critical.
The fact is, once you officially pay your debt to society, society keeps making you pay. The stigma of incarceration follows you wherever you go.
A comprehensive national study by the Justice Policy Institute found some “profoundly negative” consequences of juvenile detention, including harm to young offenders’ mental and physical well-being, their educational success rate and their ability to get and keep good-paying jobs. It also increases the chances of future delinquent behavior, which in turn increases the likelihood of repeat imprisonment.
Juvenile-detention studies across the country vary in scope, but research compiled in an Annie E. Casey Foundation report from 2011 indicates that 70% to 80% of juveniles who’ve served time in detention get arrested for new offenses within two or three years, including in Washington state. The foundation concluded that “confinement in youth corrections facilities doesn’t work well as a strategy to steer delinquent youth away from crime.”
Choose 180 is designed to break the cycle of bad behavior in young people at the very stage of life when they’re figuring out who they are and how to make responsible decisions; traditional jail time seems to make matters worse.
About 2,500 young people have attended Choose 180 workshops since 2011. While Goode plans to conduct a long-term study of the program’s success rate, a previous short-term study showed that 75% of participants didn’t reoffend in the 12 months after completing the workshop.
Last week, City Attorney Pete Holmes, also a big supporter of Choose 180, and Jenna Robert, the assistant city attorney in charge of Seattle’s diversion programs, described it as a major success since the city started referring young adults to the workshops in 2017.
Between 2017 and March of this year, 245 young-adult offenders facing charges through Holmes’ office participated in Choose 180. Only 8, or 3%, had criminal convictions after attending a workshop.
Holmes said he was always optimistic about the program’s potential but when he saw the results, “you could’ve knocked me over with a feather.”
The success so far validates his office’s view that when you fashion remedies to youth criminal behavior on a case-by-case basis, with an understanding of the individual needs of the offender and involvement from the community, the public is ultimately safer.
King County already had a diversion program for juveniles but the $260 fee placed it out of reach for many eligible but low-income black and brown teens, Satterberg said. Choose 180 is free, greatly expanding the pool of young people who can take advantage of it.
The workshops are part confession ritual and part group-healing, with a lot of unconditional love thrown in.
“We all want to be seen for who we are, not for what we’ve done — we want to be seen through the lens of possibility,” Goode said of Choose 180’s approach. “We’re an organization that’s working on developing possibilities.”
At one session held on the campus of Seattle University, a racially mixed group of about 15 young people show up, out of about 35 who were invited.
It seems crazy that someone about to be charged for a crime would skip out on a four-hour workshop that could make those charges go away.
Goode is forgiving. He knows it may take three or four slip-ups before someone seeks a second chance.
He shows no disappointment about the turnout when he walks to the front of the classroom.
“You’ve already made one great choice” by coming, he says. “So let’s help you make more great choices.”
There are strands of colored Mardi Gras beads on a table.
Goode starts with an icebreaker called “The Color of Connectedness.”
“If at any point in your entire life you have broken a law, please come down and get a green bead.”
Pretty much everyone goes up to grab a strand — the teens who faces charges, the smattering of parents who came along to see for themselves what Choose 180 is all about, even the prosecuting attorneys on hand and other guests at the back of the room.
Goode warned me before the session that this workshop is a sacred space, where young people don’t have to feel like bad seeds or criminals, or be treated like a spectacle.
So I watch quietly from the back of the room as Choose 180 speakers (some of whom are paid staff) tell their stories of redemption.
Speaker Durell Green comes to the front of the room and introduces himself.
“I’ve been mad for a real long time,” he tells us.
Green, Choose 180’s outreach coordinator, says that as a child, he used to watch his parents fight. He learned to vent his own anger through aggression.
One day, when Green was 14 and having an argument with his mom inside their rental apartment, he kicked a door so hard that he put a hole in it.
His mom called 911.
The police arrested Green over the damage he caused to the unit. He remembers neighbors watching and talking about him as he was led to a squad car in handcuffs.
His mom kicked him out. His anger issues worsened.
Green said his pivot moment would be more than a decade away, finally coming after he served time in prison for a host of crimes that followed that one act of vandalism.
“Then I had this talk with my mom around my 28th birthday,” Green tells the room.
She said she was proud of him, but Green balked. What had he ever done to make anyone proud, he asked her.
“I said, ‘I’m never going to have to look at mom in the face and have to say that again … I have to change something.'”
With a supportive church community and good mentors, Green started to see new possibilities for his life. Now 34, he’s an advocate for criminal-justice reform, and he sits on the Washington Statewide Re-entry Council for people just out of prison.
“Whatever the circumstance that led you here, you can overcome that,” Green tells his audience. “You can fight … If you’ve ever made bad decisions like I did — breaking stuff, not respecting things — if you’ve ever damaged something that was not yours, come down and get a purple bead.”
Outgoing King County Deputy Prosecutor Stephan Thomas thinks a lot about what he calls the “collateral consequences” of criminal convictions and imprisonment, but he’s also come to appreciate the power and discretion he has as a prosecutor to redirect offenders and change their lives for the better.
Thomas, an African American who’s director of the office’s Community Justice Initiatives, grew up on the South Side of Chicago. He, too, fell in with a bad crowd for a time as a teen, always getting into trouble with the law.
He eventually went to law school and became a prosecutor.
But Thomas, 38, wasn’t particularly comfortable in a job that required him to seek convictions and prison time for people who in too many cases shared his socioeconomic background and early life path.
“My idea of justice was in conflict with some of our stated goals as prosecutors,” he told me recently.
He sat in on his first Choose 180 workshop six years ago and told his own story to the room.
“I’m one of these kids,” he recalls thinking. “I’m just like them.”
“The way the system is set up, it’s all about othering and shaming,” Thomas told me.
Choose 180 is the opposite.
At the workshops, he said, “we all wear the same beads.”