How “Coach Dom” fights to keep more youth of color out of court

180 Program Co-Director Dominique Davis

180 Program Co-Director Dominique Davis

The community-based 180 Program had helped at least 800 King County teens see pre-filed charges dropped by the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office when the program’s co-director, Dominique Davis, needed to solve a problem he couldn’t ignore any longer.

Although more than half of the youth who came to the monthly 180 Program workshops in 2012 and 2013 were of color, he saw that too many invited to the workshops were not attending them. Without them there, an opportunity was lost to discuss how they could overcome obstacles that led them in the wrong direction and to introduce mentors who could connect them with counseling and job training opportunities.

Why, he wondered, would any youth pass up an opportunity to avoid creating a criminal record? As a black man who knew firsthand how a criminal record could threaten future career aspirations and financial stability, Davis needed answers.block

“Those years, out of 100 youth invited, we’d average about 25 to 30 responding—there’s a disconnect there,” said Davis, better known in Seattle’s Rainier Beach as “Coach Dom.”

So he personally contacted youth who didn’t respond to 180 Program invites to find out what was going on. What he found, ultimately, wasn’t that surprising to him.

Despite the program’s good intentions, a long history of systemic racism within the criminal justice system had broken the trust communities of color would like to have in government. An average envelope from the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office didn’t offer relief – if it even happened to reach the home where they were currently residing.

Fast-forward two years: A new communication and engagement strategy had more than doubled participation rates for youth of color in the first half of 2015.

A new message

When 180 Program invites came in the mail in its early years, Davis says the envelopes could easily blend in with other kinds of bad-news mail such as bills that weigh heavily on financially struggling families.

But what if a red stamp on the outside of the envelope sent a direct message about an option to have charges dropped and dismissed? Davis proposed a custom-made red stamp to add to the envelopes.

“These are the types of things you have to do to tap into this culture – you have to know how they survive,” Davis said. “If you know that, you can tap into all kinds of innovative outreach.”

Jimmy Hung, Director of the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office Juvenile Unit, agreed to add the stamp and suggested further changes to the format of the invite letter itself.

quote_hung“We’re all attorneys and we wrote it like attorneys. For most people, you just look at that and don’t want to deal with it because it’s so confusing,” said Hung. “In the new letter, we included more pictures and workshop highlights.”

Davis also convinced Hung that phone calls to youth would be more effective if they came from him and other 180 Program staff.

“When you get a call from Dom, you build that trust and they’re more likely to participate,” Hung said.

In cases in which youth have not responded to a letter or a call about the program, Hung has invited Davis to be there on the youth’s first day in court to take another shot in-person at describing what the 180 Program is and why it’s an option to seriously consider before charges are filed.

“It used to be you were invited twice and then it was filed,” Hung said. “We realized that wasn’t fair because some youth may be homeless. Many youth of color have unstable addresses.”

Delivering results

To study the effectiveness of each kind of outreach with different communities, Hung said his office has been digging into the data on which zip codes they struggle to engage with the most.

Engagement rates have improved after implementing new outreach strategies, especially with youth of color, Hung said. Recidivism is down too.

Davis credits his 180 Program co-director, Terrell Dorsey, with setting up workshops with mentors, discussions and connections that make a lasting impact on participating youth.

quote_youthOne youth who returned to the workshop as a speaker told The Seattle Times last year, “When people tell their stories, I feel like it’s an empowerment for everybody. It brings out a lot of emotion, too. People are tearing up because it’s real life. The stuff that they did doesn’t really determine who they are in their life.”

The 180 Program has now served more than 1,500 youth, with 40 to 50 youth now responding to invites for each of the monthly workshops. Referrals to juvenile court in general have continued to decline and, in 2014, there was a 20 percent reduction in juvenile filings.

Hung said Davis’s dedication to partnering with his office and advocating for his community has been a key resource in efforts to reduce the number of youth of color in the juvenile justice system. Davis, along with other community leaders, is also drafting recommendations to King County for reducing racial disproportionality through the Juvenile Justice Equity Steering Committee.

“He’s unique in that he has the respect of people in the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, respect of the County Council and, most importantly, he has the respect of people in the community,” Hung said. “The level of connection he has with communities that have historically been marginalized is incredible.”

Learn more: Davis will present at the North Puget Sound Conference on Race at the University of Washington Bothell on Saturday, April 9. Other presenters will include Oakland-based restorative justice leader Fania Davis and experts on mental health care.

Donate: The 180 Program’s follow-up efforts through Beyond 180 connects youth with appropriate aftercare services so they are equipped with the support they need to avoid becoming another statistic in the juvenile justice system.