Last fall, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office (CAO) started a new initiative with the nonprofit Gay City: Seattle’s LGBTQ Center to help youth aged 18 to 25. The pre-filing diversion pilot program, called Access to Change (ATC), offers some young people who are charged with low-level family domestic violence misdemeanors an opportunity to get support and avoid entanglement with the criminal legal system.
The ATC program features a five-week online workshop program for participants to practice self-determination and self-accountability as well as analyze systemic issues such as the social determinants of health and intersectionality. Cohort participants receive tech equipment to help them access the workshops as well as an $800 stipend to meet their needs. Upon completing the program, the CAO drops the charges against the participants.
The new program joins existing pre-filing diversion initiatives with the CAO, including the CHOOSE 180 young adult diversion program and a program for people charged with driving with a suspended license in the third degree. These programs provide community members access to services and help mitigate harm from the criminal legal system.
A recent cohort of nine people just finished the ATC program this spring. According to Daynon Jackson, the youth program advocacy coordinator at Gay City, the diversion pilot program is designed to help young people fulfill their own goals and support them in achieving them.
“Since our focus is on their self-determination and their self-accountability, we are supporting them moving in that process towards their goals and imbuing some self-compassion in that,” Jackson said. “[I]f they’re going to be practicing self-accountability, it’s really important that they are grounded in those values.”
So far, participants are appreciative of the program, Jackson said.
“One person through this cohort said they appreciated the sessions and learned a little about themselves,” they said.
“Another person in the past said that they actually expressed the desire to continue participating in a future cohort so that they could continue practicing those skills and learning more,” they said.
People prosecuted by the CAO tend to be poorer and more Black and Indigenous than the Seattle population as a whole. According to Seattle Municipal Court (SMC) records, Black people in Seattle were more than four times more likely to be charged with a crime in 2022 than their proportion to the population, while Indigenous people were six times more likely to be charged. More than 80 percent of defendants qualified for public defenders, meaning that they didn’t have the resources to hire their own private defense counsel. Fourteen percent of defendants were 25 years old or younger.
Indigo Magenta, the youth advocacy intern at Gay City, said that diversion programs such as ATC are crucial for preventing youth from getting involved in the criminal legal system.
“I think diversion programs in particular are really important because they provide a more restorative justice lens for people who are at high risk for being involved in the legal system,” Magenta said.
“This program is really important, especially in Washington state, because Washington state has an even more disproportionate rate of arresting BIPOC — specifically Black folk and Indigenous people — even higher than the national average,” they said.
“So this program is very, very integral to creating a more equitable future for BIPOC and queer people.”
According to Gay City’s Diversion Program Coordinator, August Rivers, the ATC program is not about reforming people. Rather, it is about offering resources and support to participants who make their own choices.
“I think there’s also an assumption that people who go through [a] diversion program need to be reformed or that diversion is a reforming process,” Rivers said. “I don’t agree with that.”
“And so just from a sort of bird’s eye view, understanding that if someone doesn’t have access to food, doesn’t have access to consistent housing, doesn’t have access to employment that they’re seeking, or schooling that they’re seeking, that then is going to impact different decisions, different circumstances in their life which may or may not be positive,” they said.
While the ATC program has had a lot of successes in its pilot phase, it hasn’t been without challenges.
Jackson said that one of the biggest challenges for the ATC program so far is the lack of case-specific resources for participants.
“Our program and our staff are not equipped for case management,” they said. “So we’re doing resource referral the best we can and being upfront with what we can offer participants and trying to connect them as best we can to the people who do have resources and the people who can support.”
The CAO has not responded to a request for comment on whether the ATC program will receive case management support or be extended beyond the current pilot program, which is on a one-year contract.
The CAO has rolled back some of its community-oriented initiatives under the administration of new Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison. In April, the CAO sent a letter to the SMC requesting to exclude people identified as “high utilizers” of the criminal legal system from community court, which offers people an opportunity to dismiss charges if they do community service. The court agreed to this exclusion on May 9, saying in an email “we must reserve its use for appropriate cases and individuals.”
Magenta hopes that elected officials recognize the value of expanding diversion programs such as ATC and other restorative justice initiatives instead of incarceration.
“Politicians will often be like we need to be tougher on crime, when in reality, healing spaces and going through a more restorative justice lens has lower rates for recidivism for people reentering the legal system,” they said.
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the May 18-24, 2022 issue.