Much of what has dominated our news cycles in 2018 has been so deeply disturbing and difficult – daily heart-wrenching gun violence, polarizing political rhetoric, and the increase in implied and explicit disparagement and “othering” of our families, friends and neighbors. Staying hopeful can be a challenge, so more than ever, we’re committing ourselves to building, expanding and strengthening our relationships so that we, together, can continue working towards a more inclusive and welcoming community for our youth and families. There is good news in the midst of all the bad, and we’ve been reflecting on some big changes that lay the foundation for system transformation in the spaces and places where TeamChild works.
There’s good news that we don’t always see or hear about.
As lawyers and advocates for youth, we have a unique vantage point. We get to see the ways that laws, policies, and practices drive the results that we’re seeing. We’ve been especially keen on diving deeper into undoing the aspects of our juvenile court system that lead to poorer outcomes, fewer opportunities and lifelong negative stigma for youth of color, youth who are differently abled and youth who don’t have the privileges of wealth and access.
In March of 2015, we put out a concept paper called The Big Shift – intentionally written as a working draft and posed as an invitation to our public sector leaders to consider a set of bold, concrete actions for transforming the juvenile court system. It’s important to note that the Big Shift paper was just one of many calls for King County and our state to commit to eliminating the use of punishment and incarceration of youth and young adults. The Big Shift ideas would not have had the same impact without the work of a much larger movement calling for major change.
In the last year, in addition to all the important work being led by communities, we’ve seen big frame-changing moves by public institutions that lay the foundation for substantial changes in how we support youth in our state. While there’s much more work to be done, we wanted to call out the big shifts that are happening
- Stop using juvenile court to address youth behavior – One of the Big Shift recommendations called out the need to open up pathways for youth to be diverted away from juvenile court. Up until this June, Washington State law limited the ability of prosecutors and juvenile courts to divert youth referred by law enforcement. We worked on legislation in 2018, spearheaded by Senator Jeannie Darnielle, to substantially expand the ability to divert referrals into community programs. Now, nearly all juvenile court referrals in Washington State can be diverted. There is much work to be done to increase the use of diversion, including ensuring that community developed diversion responses are adequately resourced and urging changes in diversion practice by law enforcement, the prosecutors, and the courts.
- Putting health and well-being at the forefront of our efforts: Another Big Shift idea called for replacing adult correctional and punitive approaches with a health and well-being framework. We specifically called for a change in oversight of King County’s juvenile detention and court programs, which were under the county’s Department of Juvenile and Adult Corrections. In November 2017, King County Executive Dow Constantine signed an executive order launching an intra-department inquiry to consider shifting oversight of juvenile detention to the county’s public health department. In February of this year, the county issued the group’s report which recommended that the county’s public health department take on oversight of detention. In response to strong community opposition to the building of a new youth jail in King County, the County Executive declared a goal of zero youth detention and convened another internal county group to develop recommendations. That group issued its Road Map to Zero Youth Detention report outlining a strategic plan that will guide future investments and policies to reduce youth involvement in the legal system. These reports and decisions are major shifts in approach, and, there is much work to be done to hold King County accountable to the goals and plans outlined in these reports.
- Treat all youth in developmentally appropriate ways, even when there is a serious offense. Young people have great potential for resilience and, given opportunities, will grow up and thrive as adults. Research on adolescent development is having an impact on our courts and the legal frameworks for setting up the response to youth behavior. But, much of our juvenile criminal legal system has been hardwired with punitive and harsh sentencing found in adult court, and in some situations, teenagers in Washington State are subjected to adult criminal court and adult sentencing laws. Our Big Shift recommendations urged a more developmentally appropriate response to youth who are charged with serious offenses, including transferring youth charged in adult court from the jail to detention. This recommendation was implemented in King County in the past year, prompted by litigation around the poor treatment of youth housed in the Kent Jail. We also joined in amicus briefs on a case that came out of the Washington State Supreme Court this past month recognizing that we should not be sentencing teenagers to die in prison. In State of Washington v. Brian Bassett, the WA Supreme Court found that sentencing children to life without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional, thereby banning this inhumane sentence in that state. Read article and decision here.
A call to stay informed, be bold and exert influence in the circles around you. We are optimistic and hopeful that together, we can bring real change to systems. Each and everyone one of us can make a difference. The big shifts in approaches that have come out of the community’s call for change has opened doors for all of us to continue to not only be visionaries, pioneers, & catalysts but also to hold our public systems and each other accountable to fulfilling the promises being made to our youth, families and communities. We hope you’ll stay engaged and active with us!
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