State officials have been working to reduce how often counties jail children for noncriminal offenses, such as running away or skipping school. The work is not over.
The research is clear: Throwing kids in jail for noncriminal offenses such as skipping school or running away from home does little to change their behavior. It can actually make them act out even more.
Washington courts appear to be using the practice less than they did a few years ago, when federal statistics showed judges here detained noncriminal kids more often than in any other U.S. state. The Seattle Times editorial board’s Young and Homeless project detailed the problem in 2015.
Still, a new statewide report shows Washington has a ways to go. An analysis of county-by-county court data shows young people in Washington were placed in juvenile detention for noncriminal offenses — primarily, truancy and running away — about 1,800 times in 2016.
Those numbers are much lower than the 2,800 such admissions reported in 2013. Although state officials now think the 2013 figure was a slight overestimate, many think the latest numbers continue to show too many kids are being jailed when they haven’t committed crimes.
“I do not think these youth should be in detention — I do not think that is therapeutic at all,” said state Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, who has been working on the issue.
State lawmakers have tried to address the problem by requiring new interventions for truant students, as well putting more money into detention alternatives.
The latest report, however, shows these new resources haven’t gone to some of the counties that jail the most truant and runaway kids.
The Legislature’s 2016 budget provided money for 34 new beds at HOPE centers, temporary shelters that are designed to connect homeless kids with services. That year, lawmakers also allocated money for 10 more beds at crisis residential centers, which are geared toward helping runaways.
But Grays Harbor County, which continues to detain more noncriminal juveniles than any other county in the state, has ended up with none of the new beds. Neither has Cowlitz County, which is No. 2 when it comes to detaining kids for noncriminal offenses.
The Legislature, the Department of Commerce and the state Department of Social and Health Services should ensure the state’s limited investments in detention alternatives are distributed more evenly and deliberately throughout the state.
Targeting the investments is easier said than done, since facilities serving homeless kids and runaways are generally operated by nonprofits that must choose to apply for state funding. But state agencies can provide technical assistance to help get new programs up and running, while making it easier for nonprofit providers to get a license to offer services for troubled teens.
People working with young people in crisis need places to put them other than a jail cell. More state resources can help keep kids out of the court system and out of detention — but those investments must go to the communities that desperately need them.