Let’s join the movement to stop criminalizing young women for the trauma they have experienced.
Did you know that girls who have experienced high levels of trauma and violence can be locked up in Washington state for skipping school and running away?
Juvenile courts across Washington are unintentionally driving girls more deeply into the criminal-justice system instead of interrupting and responding to troubling behaviors. Following the lead of the majority of other states — red and blue — we need to stop jailing girls for nonviolent status offenses. Instead, we must provide comprehensive services that treat the post-traumatic stress, housing, employment and mental-health needs of these girls, who overwhelmingly pose no threat to public safety.
Currently, the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) prohibits judges from using jail to address noncriminal offenses committed by minors. But there is a loophole — the Valid Court Order exception — which allows a judge to detain youth who do not comply with court orders to, say, go to school or obey curfew. The National Women’s Law Center 2015 report suggests that status-offense laws are rooted in a long history of wanting to protect “wayward” girls, that a judge’s use of the Valid Court Order exception continues a well-intentioned, albeit paternalistic, tradition of protection. The problem is that the use of the exception, ultimately, does not work, and places a disproportionate burden on girls.
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Mirroring national trends reported by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, girls in Washington state are arrested and detained for status offenses at a higher rate than boys. The Washington State Department of Social & Health Services 2014 Juvenile Justice Annual Report highlights that, while girls are approximately 30 percent of juvenile arrests, they are closer to 47 percent of youth admitted to detention facilities for violations of a court order/proceeding related to a status offense. The most common status offenses include running away from home, truancy and possession or consumption of alcohol. Stories of sexual violence, homelessness and post-traumatic stress are far too common among the girls we lock up, as are the types of services they need us to provide. I understand that it is hard for criminal-justice systems to give up a tool believed to keep kids safe. But in this case, being pushed to think in a different way is risky but essential.
What we need are transformational service delivery models to replace the stopgap use of detention, which is punitive, stigmatizing for girls at a pivotal developmental time and a poor substitute for desperately needed services. Counties across the state are working toward this vision. Improvement is not only possible, it is happening. The Washington State Center for Court Research’s 2017 report indicates that Clark County has nearly eliminated the use of detention for non-offender matters, a potential beacon as we address the conflict between counties and states underfunding wraparound services and judges trying to do something to safeguard — not necessarily punish — these young women. Outside of Washington state, the Coalition for Juvenile Justice reports that other states that have eliminated the Valid Court Order exception use child-welfare services as a model.
This session, state Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, has a bill, SB 5290, (and in the House, companion bill HB 1434) that seeks to eliminate juvenile detention for noncriminal behavior using a phased-out approach. Many advocates who work directly with youth impacted by the practice, including the Mockingbird Society, King County — Zero Youth Detention and The Justice for Girls of Washington state, are closely following this legislation and have hope for a legislative fix once and for all. Let’s build on that momentum and actually treat the symptoms of how girls become court-involved in the first place. Let’s join the growing cries to stop criminalizing youth for the trauma they have experienced.