Aaron Counts. Photo by Robin Force Counts

Creative Justice opens an alternate path.

“Courts are an adverse childhood experience,” says Judge Wesley Saint Clair, Chief Juvenile Judge of the King County Superior Court. “The more community-based options we can have, the less kids are impacted by things courts do to them.”

Saint Clair is a self-described “system guy” who spent 13 years as a circuit court judge in Redmond and is on his 10th year in the King County Superior Court; if anyone’s indoctrinated into the status quo, it should be him. And yet Saint Clair has thrown his unwavering support behind a fledgling program called Creative Justice, an arts-based alternative to youth incarceration.

“We can’t keep doing the same thing and expect it to change the outcome for our kids,” he says. “As much as I like to think I can think outside the box, sometimes I need help. Good ideas come from a wide variety of sources. And we’ve got to be brave enough to listen to them.”

Creative Justice launched early last year, a collective endeavor by 4Culture and the City of Seattle several years in the making. Program coordinator Aaron Counts and case manager Nikkita Oliver enlisted a handful of mentor artists under the financial auspices of 4Culture, which draws from King County’s 1% for Art Program. Established in the 1970s by both the City and County, 1% for Art allocates one percent of capital-improvement-project funds for public art.

“That 1 percent is not just to commission a painting to hang in a courthouse or jail but also for putting that money back toward the community and doing what’s right by the youth,” Counts says.

Over the course of four eight- to 12-week sessions in 2015, 48 at-risk youth engaged in music, visual art and creative writing exercises that culminated with a presentation and celebration. The goal is not only to foster creativity and personal expression but also community engagement. “Given the right environment, even young people who have been most noted for their ability to destroy can create,” Counts says.

The participants are mostly “medium-risk” 15- to 17-year-old boys and girls accused of petty crimes like theft and robbery who’ve often been victims themselves—of homelessness, domestic violence, poverty. By participating in Creative Justice, they might have their sentences minimized or avoid detention or probation altogether.

“The most exiting thing for me is that we’re really thinking differently about what justice means,” says Counts, who’s a published author and teaching artist. “A lot of programming looks at how we turn around young people making bad decisions, but we’re asking ourselves what stake we hold in the justice system and how we can rethink that and help the system to make better choices. We’re not just pointing the finger in one direction.”

“It’s been a bit of an adventure,” says mentor artist Shontina Vernon, who’s a writer, actor and musician. “I taught the first session of last year and ended up with 11 young people. What was amazing was watching them discover the power of art and finding their voices and becoming more curious and engaged with the world beyond their immediate environment. This program is unique in that it gives them an opportunity to get involved earlier, or as an alternative to being placed in a facility.”

Also unique is the exposure it gives youth to working artists. Along with Vernon, musicians Otieno Terry, Olisa Enrico-Johnson, Jamil Suleman and Daniel Kogita and poets Nikkita Oliver and Daemond Arrindell participated as artist mentors. Many sessions took place at Gallery 2312, a white-walled art gallery in Belltown with a full-time professional recording studio in the basement. Youth watched artists of all stripes come and go through the building, providing the kids a glimpse into their day-to-day working lives as members of the creative community. Late last year, for instance, the gallery hosted an exhibition by Ernesto Ybarra, whose paintings merge Catholic themes with Mayan and Aztec imagery.

“They had so many questions: Why did you paint this and that?” Vernon says. “It was wonderful to have them sit and visit. And we always go downstairs to [the recording studio]. For them it’s like, ‘Hey, there’s a little playground here. Let’s see what we can make.’” Two songs recorded during Creative Justice sessions are streamable on SoundCloud.

“I’ve been to all the session culmination ceremonies and found them to be really inspiring,” says Saint Clair. “I talked to a couple of the kids that I sent there and it seemed to be a very meaningful period of time for them. They felt invested. They felt valued. I sense they’re at a different place. One kid said. ‘I feel like I’m a member of my community now and I never felt that way.’”

“We give them a taste of this for 12 weeks, but 12 weeks is way too small,” he continues. “To me this program should be part of that continuum of restorative justice services and practices that’s based on the community, not on the court. I want to support it and encourage it. I want to be a true proponent of it.”

A correction was made to this article, which previously stated that 4Culture draws from the City of Seattle’s 1% for Art fund. In fact, 4Culture draws from King County’s 1% for Art fund.