Johnathan recently told a room full of adults at the University of Washington Tacoma how he became part of the Surenos gang.
The 17-year-old talked about how he got expelled from school for doing a gang whistle down a hallway.
And he answered questions about what might have kept him out of the juvenile justice system in the first place.
That’s exactly what Washington state is trying to figure out how to do, with a two-year, $270,000 grant from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Johnathan was one of several youths incarcerated at the Green Hill School in Chehalis, a medium and maximum security youth facility, who spoke at the grant launch day March 30.
The teens and state officials did not give the youths’ names, to protect their privacy and safety, because of the personal details they shared.
The state will use the federal grant to make a plan to reduce the number of youths, especially those of color, in the justice system for low-level offenses, and for things such as truancy.
“We shouldn’t be incarcerating kids who are runaway or truant,” Vazaskia Crockrell, director of the state’s Office of Juvenile Justice, told The News Tribune on Monday. Her office is the division of the state Department of Social and Health Services in charge of overseeing the grant’s implementation.
“We don’t want to be incarcerating youths for things we wouldn’t be incarcerating adults for,” she said. “If a child is a chronic runaway, we need to see what is going on at home.”
As the state has started detaining fewer youths, the percentage of those of color in the justice system has gone up, Crockrell said.
Since 2004, nine counties, including Pierce, have focused on reducing the number of youths in detention, in part by sentencing them to alternative programs that teach life skills. In those counties, felonies dropped from about 5,000 at the start, to about 2,500 in 2015.
At the same time, Crockrell said, black youths are almost twice as likely as white youths to be arrested. In 2013, 44 percent of juvenile court truancy petitions filed were for youths of color. Of those, 15 percent were black youths, who make up 6 percent of the state’s total youth population.
Crockrell said a grant task force, including members from Pierce County’s justice system, will examine those issues by holding meetings across the state to hear from families, law enforcement, juvenile courts, schools and others
The goal is to figure out what’s causing the percentage of youths of color in the justice system to increase and how to change it.
At the end of the two years, the task force will have a plan to do that, and Crockrell hopes the state will get an additional $800,000 grant to put it in place.
Delaware and Iowa also got the planning grant, which was announced in October, and while the money is federal, the states decide how to use it.
It’s hard to talk specifics yet, with the project just having launched.
So far Crockrell said she’s hearing there’s a need for mentors who “can relate to these youths, that can understand the communities that they’re coming from, also understanding the poverty and lack of resources.”
And in addition to mentoring, Crockrell said, there needs to be more work toward gang prevention.
“We need to do work around behavioral health, mental health, chemical dependency and substance abuse” for juveniles, she said
She also said building relationships between police and communities of color will be a focus.
Some of the planning money, Crockrell said, could go to consultants to help the state figure out how to do all those things.
The key is helping kids on the “front end,” she said, before they’ve had contact with the justice system.
A positive role model, Johnathan said, might have done that for him.
“We’re going to stumble, we’re going to fall, but we’ll get back up,” he told the adults.
Don’t make that harder, he asked them.