OLYMPIA - Washington State lawmakers passed legislation this week that would shy away from placing youth in detention for non-criminal offenses such as truancy and running away from home.
According to lawmakers, Washington State has been using the valid court order exception of the juvenile justice and delinquency prevention act more than any other state in the country, which they say is a loophole in federal law allowing judges to detain status offenders for disobeying court orders.
Lawmakers said the use of the exception to detain youth for acts like truancy, breaking curfew, or running away from home is counterproductive and "these youth should not be confined with or treated with the same intervention as criminal offenders."
A portion of the legislation reads as follows:
"The legislature finds that it is a goal of our state to divert juveniles who have committed status offenses, behaviors that are prohibited under law only because of an individual's status as a minor, away from the juvenile justice system because a stay in detention is a predictive factor for future criminal justice system involvement."
Lawmakers in support of the bill also stated studies show a disproportionality in race, gender, and socioeconomic status of youth referred to courts or detained, or both.
Under the new law, beginning on July 1, 2020, youth may not be committed to juvenile detention as a contempt sanction under chapter 13.34 RCW, and a warrant may not be issued for such youth for failure to appear at a court hearing that requires commitment of such youth to juvenile detention.
Also begining on July 1, 2020, youth may not be committed to juvenile detention as a contempt sanction for child in need of services proceedings under chapter 13.32A RCW, and a warrant may not be issued for such youth for failure to appear at a court hearing that requires commitment of such youth to juvenile detention.
The legislation would also strengthen and fund community-based programs that are culturally relevant and focuses on addressing disproportionality of youth of color, especially at-risk youth.
Supporters said the mission is to end incarceration of youth who commit status offenses is in this bill.
"The court orders were meant to be used rarely, and while I have pride in what the state has done so far, prevention is better than curative or reactive work. Youth have experienced so much trauma, and incarceration compounds this and does not work. Trauma and acting out is likely to continue until the root cause is addressed. Arresting is not evidence-based practice, best practice, or even effective," supports told lawmakers.
However, those opposed to the legislation said there are some youth who will not voluntarily submit to services.
"Previous legislation was meant to engage youth and get help; if they refuse help, there is no secure alternative. Juvenile detention is not ideal, but it is all that this state has, and is where these kids get services. Crisis Residential Centers and other secure facilities need to be expanded, but until then, we are opposed. When youth are an immediate threat to themselves, these secure alternatives are needed. Improvements have been made in the detention rates of status offenses. We oppose the lack of ability to enforce court orders in the bill. We make orders and if they know I can't enforce a VCO, then the purpose and authority of the court is in question," opponents said.
Washington State District 13 Representatives Tom Dent and Alex Ybarra voted against the bill.