King County will keep moving forward with a new juvenile restorative justice program, passed in the wake of 2020’s mass racial justice protests, despite the protests of four suburban mayors who worry it is too lenient on some youth offenders.

The Metropolitan King County Council unanimously approved the Restorative Community Pathways program in November 2020, as a small part of its massive two-year budget package.

The $6.2 million program, which only went into effect last November, allows the county prosecutor, rather than filing criminal charges, to refer certain offenders to one of eight community groups who then lead the youth and those they’ve harmed through a restorative justice process.

A guide from the community group will seek to address what led to the offense — mental health problems, unstable housing, substance abuse — while seeking to connect offenders with available services.

The program allows for up to 600 referrals a year for juvenile misdemeanors and first-time felonies, and it is up to the prosecutor’s discretion which cases get referred to the program and which are filed in the traditional legal system.

In December, just six weeks after the program went into effect, the mayors of Auburn, Federal Way, Kent and Renton issued a joint statement outlining concerns and asking for the program to be paused.

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“We are alarmed to learn that felonies such as bringing a gun or other weapon to school or a physical assault will not result in an arrest, at a time when we are seeing rising violence and mental health crises in schools,” wrote Mayors Nancy Backus, Jim Ferrell, Dana Ralph and Armondo Pavone.

In a committee meeting of the County Council on Tuesday, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg forcefully pushed back, defending the program as offering more support and better outcomes than putting kids through the legal system.

The County Council’s Law and Justice Committee voted 5-1 Tuesday against pausing the diversion program and against pushing the prosecutor’s office to limit the offenses eligible for referral.

In the first four months of the program, the prosecutor’s office has referred 166 cases for diversion, ranging from a child aged 11 to three 20-year-olds, with the vast majority under age 18, according to an interim report.

The program was originally aimed for juveniles age 17 and younger, and more than 90% of participants, so far, have been juveniles. But, the prosecutor’s office said, the number of juvenile offenders plummeted during the pandemic, so the program was opened up to some low-level offenders between ages 18 and 20.

By far the most common offense is fourth-degree assault, a gross misdemeanor punishable, for adults, by no more than one year in jail. Most of those have been for fights at school, the prosecutor’s office said. There have been just two referrals to the program for possession of a firearm.

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By referring such cases to the community groups, Satterberg said, that young person is going to be surrounded by people “who ask them to talk about why they are carrying a gun” and will be in consistent contact with them for months. If, instead, he files criminal charges, Satterberg said, there will be a trial in six to eight months and “and in the meantime nothing is going to happen with that youth … there’s no other support.”

“Then they’ll get convicted and have a felony on their record,” Satterberg said. “It’s my decision as the prosecutor and if you don’t like it, well, sorry but I get to make that call using my prosecutorial discretion.”

Councilmember Reagan Dunn pushed for the diversion program to be paused and for the prosecutor’s office to limit the offenses eligible for referral.

“Nobody thinks diversion is wrong, diversion’s a really important part of the criminal justice system,” Dunn said. But Dunn said that “more serious felonies” should go before a judge, not the restorative justice program. He said the program has a “perception problem” as violent crime has surged the last several years.

“It’s not all rainbows and unicorns here and I feel like you’re representing that,” he said.

Jimmy Hung, the chief juvenile prosecutor in Satterberg’s office, cited an example of a group of kids who push another kid to the ground and steal his backpack. That, Hung said, is felony robbery in the second degree, a case they used to file all the time, despite plenty of research showing worsening outcomes for kids after they enter the legal system.

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Would anyone have a problem with that case being diverted, Hung asked?

“I do think there’s this perception that the [Restorative Community Pathways] response is somehow a lesser response,” Hung said. “It’s a better response than what we can accomplish in the courtroom, it’s a more effective response, it holds young people more accountable.”

And while crime has surged, Hung said, juvenile offenses have not.

“We have to hear concerns and we have to address concerns and we should do that,” Councilmember Claudia Balducci said. “But if the question is should we move forward, absolutely move forward.”