Washington lawmakers this year honored the memory of Rebecca Hedman by fixing the law they passed in her name more than 20 years ago. The state is taking steps to no longer incarcerate children who have committed no crime, only run away from home or skipped school.
In 1993, Rebecca, who went by Becca, was a 13-year-old runaway from Tacoma with a substance-use disorder. She traveled to Spokane and became a child prostitute to fund her addiction. A john killed her.
Two years later, lawmakers passed the Becca Bill to help future runaways and other youths who had taken the first dangerous steps toward a tragic end. Courts could imprison runaways, repeat truants and kids who are beyond their parents’ control without finding them guilty of any crime in order to connect them to services that would address the underlying issues.
Lawmakers and advocates in 1995 had the best interests of young people at heart, and they wrote a law they thought would help.
But it had unintended consequences. Based on the limited data available, Washington leads the nation in incarcerating kids who committed no crime. That doesn’t help them. On the contrary, experts warn, locking kids up does more harm than good. It traumatizes them and leads to worse outcomes later.
Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill to stop the incarcerations. The state will phase out the practice by 2023. Judges will have a lot more discretion to direct troubled young people to providers who can help. In the most extreme cases, judges still could send youths to juvenile detention.
Given the problems that the current law causes for young people, lawmakers might have repealed the practice immediately. The delay, however, was because the state doesn’t have the infrastructure and funding in place to help thousands of troubled kids. Washington has been so busy locking them up that it hasn’t fully developed alternatives.
The new bill, then, is a promise to Becca and to all of Washington’s young people on the edge that things will change. If you skip school, if you run away, if you are rebelling uncontrollably, the state won’t lock you up, but it will have programs in place to help.
Lawmakers have only a few short years to make good on that promise.