“A lot of people may think that you come into our program and you get a free pass," says Terrell Dorsey, a co-director of the 180 Program. “But you’re getting more than a free pass."

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Four months before her 18th birthday, Sarah left her parent’s house over a family dispute. She began couch-surfing at friends’ homes, and sometimes sleeping in cars to stay off the streets.

It wasn’t long before Sarah was busted for shoplifting, her means to repay friends and buy food and drugs.

Three months later, Sarah, now 18, says she’s “changed her views.” She’s employed, back in her parent’s house and enrolled in a job-training program for information technology. She has no criminal record.

After her shoplifting arrest, Sarah was given the chance to participate in the 180 Program, a criminal-justice diversion program funded by the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. The program gives minors accused of misdemeanor offenses a chance to have charges waived before they’re even filed.

The trade-off: Four hours in a weekend workshop, where participants hear from people who have changed their lives after brushes with the law, and brainstorm a new path for themselves.

“Our job is to really understand that wall they see in front of them, get them to understand it’s a hurdle and help them find a way to jump above it,” says Terrell Dorsey, one of the co-directors of the 180 Program. “A lot of people may think that you come into our program and you get a free pass. But you’re getting more than a free pass; you’re getting to develop healthier life skills.”

The 180 Program stemmed from conversations between King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg and Pastor Doug Wheeler, a leader in the African-American community. The first workshop was hosted in July 2011, and they’ve been held every month since.

To date, the program funded by the prosecutor’s office has helped almost 1,500 young people avoid misdemeanor charges.

“The community really grabbed a hold of this idea and put together a fantastic curriculum,” Satterberg said. “I’m absolutely confident that this program has a much better outcome than teaching (youth) where the courthouse is.”

O’Shae, who was 17 when she participated in the December workshop, says it’s the atmosphere at the workshops that makes a difference.

“As soon as I walked in, I could just feel all of the positive vibes,” O’Shae said. “When people tell their stories, I feel like it’s an empowerment for everybody. It brings out a lot of emotion, too. People are tearing up because it’s real life. The stuff that they did doesn’t really determine who they are in their life.”

The Seattle Times is not using the last names of the participants because charges against them have been dismissed.

Dominique Wheeler-Davis, the program’s other co-director, says the key to encouraging buy-in is allowing young adults to hear from one another, having them brainstorm their own paths to change instead of telling them what to do.

But the work that truly makes a difference, he thinks, comes after the program: connecting kids with tutoring, counseling, jobs and rehab, and offering them an adult mentor.

Last year, a grant to increase minority-youth participation allowed the 180 Program to build a team of “community ambassadors” who helped facilitate that extra step.

Terence Charles was one of those ambassadors. At 41, Charles walks with a cane because of a bullet that damaged his spine at age 15 during a rough time he attributes partly to a lack of positive male influence.

He tears up when he talks about helping other youth avoid the same fate.

“I did a lot of crazy stuff when I was their age and I paid dearly for the mistakes that I made,” Charles said. “Everybody makes mistakes. It’s good for people to get second chances, you know. That’s what we try to offer these kids.”

This year, that grant money has run dry, and Wheeler-Davis does most of the outreach on his own. But he’s hopeful the program will find more money to rebuild the outreach program, and to grow the 180 Program. He sees a future where they can improve their attendance rates and offer two workshops each month.

“It’s all about building the relationship with these young people and that’s what makes the change,” Wheeler-Davis said. “We want to walk with a kid all the way through high school, walk with a kid through college and be able to stay connected. We still participate, but it’s hard to do that when the numbers are growing every month and we don’t have the staff.”

Currently, evidence for the success of the program is mostly anecdotal.

A 2014 evaluation by the King County Office of Performance, Strategy & Budget indicated the program was “promising” in terms of serving minority youth and having a low recidivism rate, but said more time is needed to accurately measure its effectiveness.

But facilitators of the 180 Program find success in every young person they turn away from crime — like Sarah, and O’Shae, who have both come back to speak on the youth panel at 180 workshops.

The August workshop was Sarah’s first time on the other side of the workshop.

“I’m not going to stand up here and tell everyone that I’ve made my 180 and I’m a completely changed person and I’ve accomplished the end result,” Sarah remembers saying when it was her turn to speak. “For me, it’s about taking time … I want to look back and be proud of my progress.

“I’m on track to accomplishing my 180.”