Making diversion programs more culturally responsive

Community Accountability Boards (“CABs”) have served as a diversion program – or alternative to the formal court process – for first-time juvenile misdemeanor cases in King County since 1959. CABs are made up of trained community volunteers who hear juvenile cases and devise a tailored plan of accountability for each young person.

If a young person successfully completes the CAB process, the case does not go on their record. In addition to diverting youth from the formal legal system, CABs are able to provide a more immediate response than a lengthy court process and use fewer county resources.

CABs are a great example of multiple ZYD Road Map objectives at play: Diverting youth from the formal legal system, supporting youth and families, and, with the more culturally responsive approach, leading with racial equity.

Culturally responsive Community Accountability Boards

As part of King County Superior Court’s Partnership for Youth Justice program, Shirley Noble has overseen King County’s CABs since 1997. In this time, she has helped transform the CABs to be more responsive to the communities they serve.

“When I first started, we’d send a letter to families of young people who were eligible to participate in the CABs, asking if the family wanted their child’s case to go through the CAB instead of the formal court process,” explained Noble.

She noticed that the majority of the families choosing not to participate in the CAB process were Black. This was concerning to Noble because, by not participating in the CAB, these young people would have a criminal record that would follow them their entire life.

“So, I decided to pick up the phone and call these families to understand why they weren’t participating,” said Noble. “As a Black woman, I had a cultural connection with them. I could put them at ease.” After talking with her, nearly all of the Black families agreed to participate.

This experience was the first step in expanding the CABs to make them more culturally responsive. Noble worked with community members representing different racial and ethnic populations and, in 2018, launched the Latinx CAB, which conducts cases in Spanish and consists entirely of volunteers who identify as Latinx. Noble says the creation of the Latinx CAB increased participation of Spanish-speaking families in the CAB process by nearly 80%.

Based on this success, earlier this year Noble introduced an East African CAB. “I want the CAB to look like the people they’re serving,” explained Noble. “When a family walks in the room, I want them to see someone across the table who looks like them. By doing this, we’re able to address the lack of trust, or to help explain to a family member how the legal system works.”

Members of the King County Superior Court East African Community Accountability Board (CAB)

Noble emphasized that the CAB is about looking holistically at the young person’s life and providing resources and services, rather than a punitive approach. Culturally responsive CABs have made this more possible. “You can help the kids, but how do you help the family as a whole? The Latinx CAB meets at El Centro de la Raza. If we see that a family doesn’t have enough money for food or clothes, the CAB can immediately connect the family with food and financial assistance from El Centro de la Raza.”

Based on the success of these two CABs, Noble is working on launching additional CABs tailored for specific communities.

How the CAB process works

Each CAB – whether culturally specific or not – follows a similar structure, which is designed with the goal of balancing the needs of the community, the victim, and the offender.

A panel of trained CAB volunteers meet the child and a parent or guardian in a community space near the family’s home. The CAB volunteers interview the child and the parent separately. “I always train volunteers to ask the parent ‘What would you like to see happen?’ That gives us more insight,” explained Noble.

Based on these interviews, the CAB volunteers draft a diversion agreement, which they review and sign with the family. Using a restorative justice model, CAB volunteers give assignments they think will be most beneficial to each young person.

“Shoplifting is a common offense at the CAB,” Noble explained. “So, the CAB may assign community service, explaining to the young person that what they’ve done affects the entire community. When you steal something from this store, now the owner has to mark it up, now your parents and other shoppers have to pay more. What you’ve done has impacted your community, so we’re asking you to give back to your community.”

From there, a monitor – also a volunteer from the family’s community – follows up regularly with the family to ensure the agreement is completed. Of the nearly 200 cases heard by the CABs each year, Noble noted that 94% of participating young people successfully complete their diversion agreement.

In reflecting on the restorative justice model, one young person who participated in a CAB explained, “What really helped me through this reflection process was understanding that I could come back from this mistake.”

Volunteering

Noble has over 120 CAB volunteers at any time. “I don’t have to recruit volunteers – my phone is ringing with people saying, ‘I remember when I was in trouble and people helped me and I want to give back.’ I even have volunteers who went through the CAB as young people and have returned as adult volunteers.”

If you’re interested in learning more or volunteering, contact Shirley Noble at: 206-296-1133 or shirley.noble@kingcounty.gov.