The debate over building a new juvenile justice center in King County has generated controversy for nearly a decade. And when the new Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center in Seattle fully opens in mid-February, I suspect that controversy over the need and use of the building will not end.
It’s up to other branches of the government to pass laws and charge cases. But as the judge covering the juvenile criminal docket for the south end of our county for the past year, I would like to share my perspective from the bench: The continued transformation of the system and redemption for these kids require that we confront the grim reality of these cases, and that we reject easy answers and superficial caricatures as unproductive.
The human misery that is found on the juvenile criminal docket is a treadmill of sorrow. Parents devastated that their child is accused of a violent felony hear the words “State vs. my son” for the first time. Agonized victims confront the loss of a loved one to juvenile recklessness. Grandparents or even great-grandparents come to court showing signs of intergenerational trauma.
And those aren’t even the juvenile defendants. In my court, I regularly see children who were born in prison or have parents who were deported, who suffer from severe substance-abuse disorders and who present with significant mental-health conditions. Many of these “offenders” are themselves victims.
One young girl I saw last year started smoking marijuana at age 7 and graduated to meth at age 13. (Certain details were modified to protect the privacy of this individual.) Her advocates raised sex trafficking concerns when she was brought in for possession of a stolen vehicle. She was convicted and placed on probation for one year. We tried nearly a dozen different community programs: multi-systemic therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, family functional therapy, culturally appropriate substance-abuse and mental-health counseling. And here she was again in my courtroom, having cut off her ankle bracelet, which was supposed to keep her at home. She had been found in a car by the police with a “strange older man” after having disappeared on Christmas Day. We’d already tried straight release to the custodial great-aunt. We’d tried ankle bracelets four times. We’d tried secure detention twice, which also served as detox. She begged her great-aunt for another chance. And her great-aunt implored me to keep her in secure detention for her own safety. Should I detain her or not? And, if so, where?
Yet in our court, I also see incredible selflessness: Whether it is the juvenile probation counselor and defense counsel who each give their cellphone numbers to a young man so he may call 24/7, even after the case is over; the community mentor who will drive that young man to his treatment appointments twice a week and sit “in circle” with him to begin the healing process; and, yes, it is the thoughtful prosecutor, and tough but caring detention staff, who remind the kids they are not alone, even when there’s no one else with them at counsel table.
There is no more important work in the justice system than addressing the needs of these kids. There is no greater opportunity to improve public safety for the next 10, 20 or 30 years than by preventing the future crimes they may commit as adults. There is no greater chance for rehabilitation than now, while their brains are developing and the possibilities are plentiful. There is no greater thrill (and fear) than to give them the freedom, resources, space and time to mature, atone and gain back some of their lost childhood.
What’s the lesson from my perch? As a wise mental-health provider once said to me about juvenile justice: Keep it complicated. It is a disservice to the modern-day angels who help these kids to simplify these challenges into a yes-or-no debate about any one building. It is a disservice to the progress the county — all three branches — has made in trying, kid by kid, to undo 400 years of racial inequities. And most important, it is a disservice to the kids to tell them there are good guys and bad guys, and that they are powerless to the forces that be, with no hope of shaping their own future.
As we prepare ourselves for the ongoing conversation about detention, I urge King County residents to embrace the complexity and work with us to help shape a better future for all of our kids.