April 2015 Bar Bulletin
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Is Zero Detention an Impossible Dream?

 

Zero Detention. We would live in a world where we would no longer need to use juvenile detention because there would be effective restorative and therapeutic alternatives throughout King County. The first time I heard this idea, I thought it was preposterous. I thought the same thing the second, third, 10th and maybe 20th time I heard it.

But then I felt my mind beginning to open. Right now, the concept of Zero Detention seems impossibly ambitious. Where would we put youth who have allegedly seriously injured someone with a gun? Or a young man accused of rape? Those questions still linger - no - loom in my mind. Yet, rather than focus on what seems to make this goal unattainable, I've begun to think about steps we could take toward making it possible.

The opponents of the new Children and Family Justice Center have been beating this drum for a very long time and it is only now that I and others in County government are beginning to see that there is value in reaching for a goal that seems so far out of our grasp. As painful as this process has been for me, personally, and for the Court, I am grateful for the opportunity to reflect on my own thinking and get back in touch with my inner radical, who was a public defender in juvenile court 20 years ago. I've been reading widely and talking with a variety of people with different perspectives.

Rather than think first about limitations, think of the thousands of years the moon seemed out of reach. The goal of eradicating smallpox from the globe probably seemed impractical the first time an epidemiologist proposed it. The Wright Brothers were probably told their dream, too, was just that: a dream.

An ambitious goal is valuable, in part, because of all the progress we make toward it, even if we wait for what seems an eternity to attain it. Before smallpox was eradicated, it became rare.

Eliminating a dread disease is a realistic goal we can universally agree upon (okay, maybe not on Vashon Island). But is eliminating juvenile detention such a goal? The Court and County can work on a very incremental level to change how we respond to probation violations and failures to appear in court, and maybe tighten further eligibility for admission to detention of newly arrested teens. These measures will help reduce the population in secure detention, but they won't get us to zero.

To move beyond tinkering with our own system would mean confronting the community tolerance for risk or lack thereof. Imagine if the County were to approach a neighborhood in Kent or Federal Way with a proposal to house alleged felons in a group-care setting without a lock on the door. I suspect that there is not a neighborhood in Seattle that would welcome a facility like that, despite the opposition of some city councilmembers to the new Children and Family Justice Center. I do not think that the public will accept the notion of youth accused of violent felonies residing in the community pending trial. Maybe it is just a failure of imagination on my part.

The other dream of some of the critics of the new building is revolutionary change of the juvenile justice system itself. One idea gaining traction among scholars and policy experts at the U.S. Department of Justice is taking a "developmental approach" to youth crime based on modern research on the adolescent brain. This approach includes the following elements:


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