Juvenile division prosecutor defends Restorative Community Pathways

Controversial King County program diverts young offenders from incarceration for certain crimes.

Restorative Community Pathways (RCP) is the best way to reduce the juvenile crime rate in King County, said Jimmy Hung, Chief Deputy Prosecutor at King County’s Juvenile Division.

The program diverts kids who have committed a crime away from the prison system and instead focuses on rehabilitation through community-based organizations that specialize in restorative justice.

Restorative justice seeks to address the root cause of an offender’s problematic behavior and offer real justice and restitution for the victim, according to the prosecuting attorney’s office.

In January 2022, King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn proposed a pause to the county’s Restorative Community Pathways program. Dunn’s proposal was in response to concerns about the program brought up by South King County Mayors Jim Ferrell (Federal Way), Nancy Backus (Auburn), Dana Ralph (Kent) and Armondo Pavone (Renton).

“All crimes that hurt the safety of our communities — such as shoplifting rings, home burglaries, and car thefts — need to be taken seriously so that folks are not re-victimized and the security of our neighborhoods is preserved,” Dunn said. “In particular, it is shockingly irresponsible to remove legal consequences for any firearm-related crime at a time when gun violence is surging to an all-time high. There should be real ramifications, including prosecution, for these dangerous crimes.”

Although Dunn’s motion was shot down five to one during a council meeting on March 1, 2022, Hung wants people to know the facts about the program and how his office is viewing it.

Hung said the way Dunn and other community leaders have framed restorative justice as being separate or counter to community safety is misguided.

“That presumes that restorative justice is oppositional to public safety,” Hung said. “In my opinion, that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what restorative justice is. Restorative justice is about public safety. It provides public safety so they’re not oppositional. And so someone who is drafting a motion like that just doesn’t understand it.”

In his 20 years of experience as a prosecutor, Hung said his perspective on the prison system has changed. Initially, he supported the supposed “tough on crime” approach toward dealing with the crime by locking people up. But, after seeing the actual effects that incarceration has on people, his view shifted, Hung said.

“I think we as a society, and especially in America, need to have a ‘come to Jesus moment’ on what our criminal justice system is actually capable of,” Hung said. “Then also have a reality check on the very real damage that it causes to human capital.”

Effects of incarceration

The reality of the situation is that the criminal justice system often does more harm than good, he said, especially when it comes to kids. That’s not just his opinion either. Decades of research have shown that putting kids through the criminal justice system pushes them toward criminal behavior rather than away from it.

Hung said data over many decades suggest how effective restorative justice can be in changing behaviors of juvenile offenders, especially when compared to the effects that incarceration has been shown to have on youth.

He detailed how a juvenile’s involvement in the court system and the criminal justice environment can damage a young person’s self-esteem and self-worth, making them more likely to develop a life of criminality. He argued that these juveniles are still children, just trying to discover their own identity in a system that is treating them like an adult criminal and not a child in need of guidance.

“Kids engage in risk-taking,” Hung said. “That is just part of growing up.”

He said RCP provides better accountability for the offender and more support for the victims of crimes compared to the traditional court system.

Under the existing system, 99.9% of the resources are directed toward the offender and next to no resources are given to the victim, Hung said. The traditional court system spends money on prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, incarceration and supervision, which are all concerned with the offender, Hung said

The only thing Hung as a prosecutor can promise the victim is that he will listen to them, and even in cases in which restitution to the victim is ordered, it is rarely ever paid out.

On the other hand, RCP provides an equal amount of resources to both the offender and the victim, Hung said.

“The great thing about Restorative Community Pathways is that the folks in the community who run this program treat the person who has been harmed and the person who has caused harm as equals and they provide support for both of them,” Hung said.

Restorative Community Pathways has funds to offer the victims of crimes immediate restitution without going through a lengthy court process, Hung said. Beyond this, the community-based organizations can help victims of crimes in areas that have nothing to do with the crime itself such as housing or food insecurity. None of these resources are provided to the victims of crimes in the traditional justice system.

On a more fundamental level, Hung said he believes that when it comes to community safety, the people who actually live in communities affected by crime know what’s best for their community. That’s why RCP exists.

“I frankly have no idea what people who live in neighborhoods where bullets are flying past their head are going through,” Hung said. “So who am I to say I have some monopoly on knowing what keeps communities safe, right?”

Gun violence

A big point of contention surrounding the program was gun violence and other violent crime. Dunn and the South King County mayors who called for the program’s pause said that certain violent crimes, especially ones involving guns, shouldn’t be eligible for diversion through RCP and said that violent crime is rising.

Hung said that over the last several decades, crime has decreased dramatically. However in the last two years during the pandemic, violent crime has risen, but it has also risen in every other major metropolitan area in the United States, so the issue isn’t unique to King County, Hung said.

An important thing to note is that the crime rate in the last two years has increased among adults, not children. To use rising crime as a justification for pausing the program is just not correct, Hung said.

“In 2021, we had, by far in the history of this county, the lowest number of juvenile referrals into my office,” Hung said.

He said the referrals from police departments recommending prosecution of a juvenile has drastically decreased from the tens of thousands of referrals he would receive annually in the mid-1990s, to now just over 1,000 in 2021. Hung said this is a decent metric and indicator of how juvenile crime has been decreasing over the years despite a huge population explosion in the region during the same time period.

The rise in gun crime has been associated with adults who haven’t been involved with gun crime before, not kids, Hung said. This includes increased gun violence in domestic violence situations, around homelessness, and interestingly enough, road rage. Gun violence related to gang activity has actually remained relatively stable over the course of the pandemic, Hung said.

Hung said RCP is important because it not only diverts kids from a system that is harmful, but it also provides kids with a level of support the courts simply can’t come close to.

“What we’re not very good at is wrapping ourselves around a young person to help them make better decisions and to turn their lives around,” Hung said. “And that’s where I think the community comes in and they do a much much better job than we could ever do.”