The state has taken steps in recent years to try to reduce the practice of locking up young people for non-criminal offenses. A newly passed law aims to phase out the use of detention for young people who repeatedly skip school or run away and then fail to comply with a judge’s order.
Democratic state Sen. Jeannie Darneille, the prime sponsor of the measure, said she became motivated to take on this issue when she found out Washington led the nation in incarcerating kids for status offenses. Those are offenses that only apply to juveniles, such as running away, skipping school or breaking curfew.
Darneille said she felt strongly that juvenile detention for such offenses was the wrong approach.
“It is a traumatic experience in itself coming up before the court and then having that kind of an outcome,” she said. “This became, in my view, state-sanctioned trauma.”
Truancy, for example, is often the result of underlying problems that are better addressed with more social-service resources, she said.
“It could be a failure to engage in the educational process. It could be that they’re being bullied at school,” she said. “It could be that they’ve got very sad and dangerous experiences in their homes.”
Some judges had opposed the bill, arguing that detention is not ideal but it's a necessary tool when young people fail to comply with court orders. Darneille said the Washington State Partnership Council on Juvenile Justice will hold community meetings in coming months to hear from the public on possible detention alternatives.