A King County plan to reduce reliance on jailing kids should focus everyone’s attention on helping all children thrive.
The plan King County announced Tuesday for reducing disproportionality in juvenile detention is about more than taking a different approach to youth crime. Its best outcome would be to provide the spark that ignites a new commitment by other systems and the community to improve the lives of all children.
King County Executive Dow Constantine called it a paradigm shift in thinking about juvenile justice and child well-being. This may be one of those moments when ideas talked about for a long time acquire the force to deeply change entrenched practices.
Opposition to plans for building a new juvenile-justice facility helped shake some of the complacency about a broken system. So, too, have national outcries against mass incarceration, and recently against ongoing bias in the criminal-justice system that comes down hard on black Americans especially, but also on Latinos and poor people of all races.
Last year King County Superior Court judges read and discussed Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Constantine read it, too. The book uses data to show how bias in the justice system damages black Americans.
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And more broadly, beginning in the 1980s incarceration became the favored alternative to solving a host of problems. That tendency is evident in juvenile detention.
Now jail is too often where kids who act out in school wind up. It’s where children who come from neglectful or abusive homes wind up. It’s where we sometimes house homeless children and children who have untreated mental-health problems.
Last year there were 4,393 referrals to the county’s juvenile-justice system and 2,139 admissions to secure detention.
Susan Craighead, King County Superior Court presiding judge, said Tuesday the justice system has become a dumping ground for children other systems lack the resources to handle.
Two-thirds of youth in the nation’s detention facilities meet criteria for having a mental disorder, she said, and “Given that Washington ranks 48th in the United States for access to mental-health care, it is likely that the statistics in King County’s detention center are worse.”
She said the county effort is focusing on education, child welfare and mental health, as well as the justice system.
Kids who are kicked out of school are more likely to be accused of a crime. She cited a study now being done for the courts by a University of Washington professor that found that of 29 black kids in detention one day last October, only 11 were attending school at the time of admission. About 44 percent of the white youth were not attending school either. National studies show that 80 to 85 percent of young people in the juvenile-justice system had at one time been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect, she said.
Juvenile detention is about crime, but sometimes the crime is that the society doesn’t do what it should to care for its children. And we know better. We’ve known better for a long time.
At a briefing on the plan Tuesday, Constantine said that for two decades King County has been a national leader in creating alternatives to locking kids up. Like the rest of the country we went off the rails in our affinity for jailing people. Constantine noted the current juvenile-detention facility was built “in 1991 at the height of drug-war hysteria,” and one day in 2000 reached a peak population of 205. But the county adopted reforms and the average now is 45 to 60 a day.
One thing didn’t change, and in fact got worse, and that is the disproportionate number of black kids locked up. Constantine said black kids are 10 percent of the county’s youth population but 50 percent of the incarcerated population.
The plan is about first steps to understand the roots of the disproportionality and to provide more options and opportunities to all youth, he said. And most important is keeping young people from falling into the system to begin with.
“Disproportionality is not just a justice-system issue, it is a societal issue,” he said. So he promised to bring together school districts and police agencies and other stakeholders in the effort to fix what’s wrong.
The plan further reduces the number of detention beds in the new facility and devotes more space and money to helping children and families. It includes working with schools to keep students enrolled, helping kids develop skills and behaviors that will get them jobs, increasing social-service access overall.
Craighead said judges will reduce their use of detention for probation violations by 50 percent within a year, by relying more on rewards for compliance.
They’ll look for creative alternatives to detention for status offenders, such as truants and children who’ve run away from foster-care or group homes after being removed from their parents because of neglect or abuse.
“What King County’s announcement today signifies,” Craighead said, “is that we are not willing to continue forcing our children, King County’s children, to be prosecuted in order to get the help they need.”
Let’s hope that attitude change catches on with schools, the Legislature and the rest of us.