17 Dec Board Perspective
Board Perspective –
by Krista Leigh Elliott
For 14 years, I have worked as a public defender in the Juvenile Division of Spokane County. I can receive cases that range anywhere from misdemeanor Disturbing School charges, to First Degree Murder charges. Ages can range from nine years old to eighteen years old depending on the circumstances. It is a job where I have seen a nine year old bring their teddy bear to court, a twelve year old who has been sexually trafficked, a fourteen year old charged with murder, and of course, seventeen-year-olds charged with Minor in Possession of Alcohol. It can be trying, but also rewarding.
The Washington State Supreme Court Standards for Indigent Defense require that a public defense attorney receive no more than 250 juvenile offender cases a year. The Supreme Court has also said that children are different from adult offenders, yet the criminal representation of youth has been slow to reflect this sentiment. As a traditional juvenile public defender, we get assigned a case, we investigate the case, we negotiate the case, and we ultimately resolve the case. However, as a holistic juvenile public defender, we strive to help the whole child, including addressing the circumstances that led up to the criminal charges and what the needs of the youth are. In order to effectively represent the “whole child” it is often necessary to work with social workers, mental health and drug and alcohol counselors as well as family members. Unfortunately, a shift to holistic representation has not been fully made yet. With 250 cases a year, public defenders continue to have to balance the traditional and holistic defender roles with the resources and time available.
In Spokane County, the juvenile public defenders do not have social workers to assist them as some other jurisdictions do and we are limited in the resources available to us.Fortunately, in Spokane County, there is TeamChild. TeamChild treats the whole child and holistically represents youth in the way that traditional juvenile public defenders cannot. In one specific situation, I represented a youth on a felony property offense whose living situation was, in my opinion, extremely unhealthy for him. He knew he had to find stable and safe housing. While I was working to resolve his criminal matter so that the felony would not hold him back from getting a job, TeamChild worked with him on virtually everything else. Together, they obtained his birth certificate so he could get a license. They were able to get his benefits paid directly to him and not to his family, where there was conflict. Also, they advocated strongly for the youth and often provided transportation, which helped him to find housing and become employed. Partly because of the work that TeamChild did with this young man, who became independent and employed, I was able to resolve this youth’s case in a way that wouldn’t affect his future. Thus, holistic representation. Additionally, the resolution of this youth’s case helped our community, because now this young man is employed and living in a safe residence. His basic needs are met. This significantly reduces the likelihood this young man will struggle in our community and re-enter the court system.
TeamChild advocates for the well-being and positive futures of our youth. But they don’t just do this on an individual basis; they also look at the bigger picture by advocating for legislative reform. TeamChild led in the advocacy for new legislation that would help divert kids out of the criminal justice system by allowing more types of cases to be handled in a diversion program. Now, in Washington State the vast majority of juvenile referrals may be sent to a diversion program. In that program youth have access to more community-based services and the ability to have their records sealed upon completion of that programming. This legislation also significantly reduces the use of incarceration for youth.
In Spokane County, we are in the beginning stages of sending more juvenile offenses to diversion instead of through the traditional court system. The Spokane County prosecutors’office must agree to send these cases to diversion even if allowed by the statute, so currently that is something that the public defenders in Spokane and the prosecutors’ office are trying to work their way though. However, we are seeing cases sent to diversion that would not have been sent before the new legislation. This is a significant win for our youth and the community. Kids make mistakes. However, these “mistakes” shouldn’t hold youth back for the rest of their lives. I love working with the kids, really listening to what they have to say and helping them to have a voice in our criminal system. It is absolutely the best part of the job. Most of the children that I work with everyday are in crisis and many times the criminal case that I have been assigned to, is only the beginning of what is going on in their lives. They often feel hopeless and unable to do things for themselves due to their age or circumstances. TeamChild empowers youth by helping them take charge of their own lives, whether it is in their education, the court system,or where they are living. These are children and they need our help. Fortunately, I see TeamChild help kids every day in my job as a public defender. The work that they do is invaluable to the youth and to the community and this is why I am now a proud board member of TeamChild. Please consider supporting TeamChild and their mission to remove legal barriers so that young people have the the opportunity to succeed.