King County teens hold peers accountable through unique crime mediation program

SEATTLE — While some teenage criminals are sent to jail, there's a King County program that aims to keep them out.

These young offenders must face the people they've harmed, and a teenage mediator helps break through decides their fate.

Jerell Colman is a 16-year-old who now spends a lot of time at the Federal Way Boys and Girls Club, mostly volunteering with Charissa Eggleston and the Helping Youth Perform Excellence, or HYPE, program.

He’s now a youth leader, but was headed down a much different path.

“He could've been walking around with a criminal record doing time” Eggleston said. “He could have been incarcerated.”

In late 2016, Colman was arrested with other teenagers for breaking into DBM Contractors in Federal Way.

Combined, the teens did $50,000 worth of damage. Colman said he had started hanging out with some kids at his apartment complex who were known troublemakers.

“I really had a weak mindset at that time,” he said.

Dustin Pulley, Colman's stepfather, got the call at work of the arrest.

“I was pretty disappointed,” Pulley said, “because we try to steer him in the right direction.”

While he was trying to figure out the legal situation, Pulley gwas told that the prosecutor considered Colman a candidate for the Alternative Dispute Resolution program.

He was told it was a mediation that could reduce Colman's charges if he faced the people he'd harmed.

And they agreed to do it.

“I had no idea that a program like that existed,” Pulley said.

Colman told KIRO 7 about the moment he first saw the people from the construction company.

“When I walked in the room, my stomach completely dropped,” he said.

What makes the program even more unique is the presence of a youth mediator in the room.

Cheyenne Brashear was the teenage volunteer assigned to Colman's case.

“That kid reminded me of my brother,” she said. “Just another multiracial, black kid growing up in the wrong neighborhood making the wrong friends.”

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Brashear is one of about a dozen teenage leaders in King County trained to be part of the restorative mediations.

Polly Davis, a longtime mediator with King County, came up with the first-of-its-kind program three years ago.

She worked with prosecutors, defense attorneys and youth probation officers to determine how it would work.

“Having the youth in the room is an incredibly powerful dynamic changer,” Davis said. “For one thing, they are a subject matter expert.”

The victim or a victim’s advocate has to agree to be in the room in order for the teen to get a chance to go through the mediation. The victim comes up with the action plan or punishment for the teen.

The youth mediation program averages one case per month.

It started with minor crimes such as petty theft but the seriousness of the crimes they cover has increased.

Recently, the program successfully diverted a weapons charge and a charge of an assault on an officer.

It's ultimately up to a judge to sign off on the action plan.

Davis said the youth mediator has made a big difference.

“That's who the youth look at,” she said.

During Colman's mediation, he heard the victims detail the impact of his actions.

While he was only part of one break-in, there had been three consecutive nights of break-ins.

Workers at DBM were afraid to come to work and had no idea it was just some teens causing mischief.

In the mediation, Colman gave a soft-voiced apology, but the victims weren’t feeling it. The breakthrough came when Brashear talked one-on-one with Colman and asked how he wanted to be heard.

“He was just, like, ‘I'm really sorry, I just don't know how to say it,’” she said. “And I was, like, 'Well, you just need to go in there and say it and mean it, you know?'"

Colman said that moment gave him the confidence to go in and give a more heart-felt apology.

Davis said, at that point, the victims' attitude toward Colman changed.

They asked Colman about his interests. He told them how he to play basketball. So they used his love of basketball to determine his action plan. He had to do community service hours running the scoreboard at the Boys and Girls Club in Federal Way.

And he had to join Eggleston's HYPE program.

“He met that and he's surpassed that,” Eggleston said. “I'm just super impressed with Jerell. As soon as he completed his hours, he was, like, ‘Does this mean I can't come anymore?’ I was, like, 'No, you’ve got to keep coming as long as you want.' So, he's been coming consistently for a year. He often volunteers.”

KIRO 7 anchor John Knicely asked Davis how she’d respond to someone saying Colman is getting off easy.

“I think it's incredibly brave for youth to be in the room with the people they did something to,” she said. “And it takes guts to do that.”

Colman did just that.

And now, instead of being locked up with other youth criminals, Colman is spending his time helping other kids make better choices.

His stepfather says he’s become a leader.

“He doesn't have a record,” Pulley said. “It's been expunged. He's just a regular kid going about his business now.”

The teen mediation program is one example of how King County is shifting Juvenile Justice under the direction of Public Health.

Public Health Director Patty Hayes is leading the team to have a full proposal by March 15.