The Superior Court Judges’ Association recently asserted that children who have not committed a crime should be jailed for their own safety. [“Sometimes detention is the only choice to keep a child safe,” Opinion, March 8.] I disagree. In fact, research shows that just the opposite is true: Jail endangers children. The only thing a child learns by going to jail is that they belong in jail.
In their Op-Ed, the judges oppose Senate Bill 5290, which, as originally drafted, would have eliminated detention for children who run away from their home or from foster care, stay out of school, or disobey their parents — behaviors known as “status offenses”. (Now called Engrossed Second Substitute SB 5290, the legislation would no longer eliminate detention for kids who disobey their parents.) The judges cite no empirical evidence in support of their idea that jail is a safe place for children, and they cannot, because research demonstrates the opposite.
The federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention recognizes that jailing children does not reduce reoffending (and may increase it for certain youths) and that confinement fails to address underlying causes of status-offending behaviors.
Jail does not help children access services. Jail does not cause children to trust the system or the adults within it who claim to want to help them. Jail does nothing to improve the chances that law enforcement will find a missing child. It actually makes it harder: It teaches children to fear the adults, such as social workers and medical professionals, who we want children to run toward, not away from, when they are in danger.
As public defenders, we see children who run away from adults who could help them because they fear being booked into jail. The Seattle Times recently profiled a 14-year-old girl who was subject to an arrest warrant because she ran away from a foster placement. She was so afraid of law enforcement that she jumped a fence and ran through a forest to hide in a thorny bush (where she was found, handcuffed and arrested). She was booked into jail and released, and she ran again. While on the run, she sought emergency medical treatment, was admitted to the hospital, and, once she had recovered, was arrested and booked into jail. She was provided no services, and took off on the run again.
I know the Superior Court judges care for each of the individual children who come before them, but good intentions cannot redeem a broken and racist system. In a county that is 69 percent white, more black children than white children face jail for status offenses. In 2016, although 8 percent of King County’s population is black, 43 percent of the children who were jailed for status offenses were black. Only 34 percent of the children booked into jail were white.
Our systems for helping children and families are broken. And while we cannot fix all of the problems all at once, we can, right now, stop doing the things we know don’t work and harm children. The state Legislature is currently debating SB 5290, a comprehensive solution that would phase out the jailing of children who are not accused of any crimes. Although there are a variety of ways in which children can be detained for status offenses, in King County most of the children detained are in foster care, meaning the prosecution is handled by the state Attorney General’s office. But practice varies widely by jurisdiction, which is why a statewide response is needed.
Given the harm we cause these children when we jail them and the significant racial disproportionality in the use of these practices, SB 5290 should pass in its original form.