The review could make King County the first jurisdiction in the nation to approach juvenile crime through a public-health lens.

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King County may soon treat youth crime as a public-health issue, rather than a problem meriting only punishment.

Flanked by Seattle’s interim Mayor Tim Burgess, County Executive Dow Constantine announced Thursday that Juvenile Detention Services will aim for a “trauma-informed” approach to incarcerated youth. The ultimate goal, both men said, is zero youth incarceration.

“Youth crime is a sign of ill-health in the community,” said Burgess, endorsing the move. King County would become the first jurisdiction in the nation to handle juvenile crime through a public-health system, he added.

By mid-February, Public Health-Seattle & King County will report on how best to effect this change, which could result in reorganizing Juvenile Detention Services under the health department.

Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole weighed in with wholehearted support, calling the public-health orientation a “bold step.”

Constantine’s order comes two weeks after a class-action lawsuit was filed against King County on behalf of four teens held in solitary confinement at an adult jail in Kent. The suit prompted Constantine to direct that all juvenile defendants charged as adults be moved to the Youth Services Center in Seattle.

Constantine’s announcement also continues a broader trend in the prosecutor’s office, one that has allowed a handful of teens facing felony charges to clear their records by participating in peace circles and counseling.

In general, the initiative has been hailed.

But Stephanie Trollen, who manages victim assistance efforts for the prosecutor’s office, acknowledged that many harmed by youth crime could view the public-health orientation as “too soft” and rubbing “salt in the wound.”

“I think the reception will be very mixed,” she said.

Already, serious questions have come up. Last month one young man who claimed to have made a complete turnaround was charged with first-degree murder for fatally stabbing another teen while undergoing the peace-circle process.

Chief Juvenile Prosecutor Jimmy Hung, while shaken by that outcome, is not deterred.

Research on the juvenile incarceration shows little positive effect beyond increasing the likelihood of future criminal behavior, he noted, and state law mandates that youth imprisonment be directed at rehabilitation, not punishment.

The best way to prevent “another 10 victims down the road,” Hung said, is to work with young people and their families.

Dominique Davis, who heads the nonprofit Community Passageways, said he has already done that with a dozen King County youths — several of them facing firearms charges — and diverted their cases from the criminal justice system. In some cases, Davis has been able to pay young people as “credible messengers” who can use their own prison experiences to sway others.

The opportunity to see themselves as having value can be life changing, Davis said.
“The guns get put down. The friends start changing. It works.”