2019: A Tipping Point for Juvenile Justice

“I will never forget you guys and the chance you all have given me to change my life around.” — 2016 youth participant of Family Intervention and Restorative Services

Last year, for the first time ever, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (PAO) diverted more juvenile cases than we filed through the court system. This critical milestone marks a tipping point in how juvenile cases are handled by our office, where we seek to emphasize restorative approaches over traditional punitive responses.

Children are different: science tells us that the human brain isn’t developed until at least 25. Considered in concert with systemic racism and the overrepresentation of Black, Brown, and Indigenous children in the criminal justice system, in 2017, King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg made the decision to separate the PAO’s cases involving young people into what is now the Juvenile Division.

The Juvenile Division, previously a unit within the Criminal Division, is now an incubator for criminal justice reform, with a strong emphasis on supporting victims, community justice, restorative justice, diversionary programs, and alternatives to secure detention. In recent years, our office has intentionally invested resources to shrink the court’s response and increase the community’s role in repairing harm.

By 2019, restorative justice programs like Choose 180, Family Intervention and Restorative Services (FIRS), and Truancy Intervention were diverting hundreds of youth to supportive community programs and away from the criminal justice system. That same year, there were 1,033 juvenile criminal filings compared to 5,566 in 2000. These efforts have contributed to significantly fewer King County youth in secure detention, which decreased from a high of 205 in 2000 to an historic low of 34 in 2019.

“I learned a lot in there — they taught me anger management, and about respect, and I learned about feelings and communicating better. I did those restorative questions, and made a safety plan… I really learned a lot of things.” — 2018 youth participant of Family Intervention and Restorative Services

What’s more — these programs are effective at reducing recidivism. For example, a 2014 study of Choose 180 found that, compared to the control group, youth who graduated from the Choose 180 program were statistically less likely to recidivate within one year.

The PAO’s Juvenile Division is now setting the standard for progressive and innovative approaches to handling juvenile cases, and we will continue to lead efforts to end the school-to-prison pipeline and create a justice system that centers victims’ voices, repairs harm, and supports our young people. We will do this while at the same time focusing on the most serious violent cases in our community — and we will be accountable through public documents in each case. Learn more about the PAO’s Juvenile Division.