The future for our youth has been weighing on my mind. In many respects I am hopeful for our future generations. I had the privilege of judging the final round of the YMCA Mock Trial competition for King County. The caliber of the advocacy by the high school students gave me great confidence in the future of the legal profession. But for some, their future may be seriously derailed as a result of even one contact with the current juvenile justice system.
At the March board meeting, the KCBA trustees created a task force to identify legal barriers that may contribute to the over-representation of youth from historically disadvantaged communities in the juvenile justice system. The decision to create the task force follows on an inspired presentation by Trustee Nicole McGrath. In January, McGrath, an attorney who advocates for youth, and who is a thought leader in juvenile justice reform, provided a passionate and data-driven presentation outlining the work under way to support juvenile justice reform. The trustees concluded that KCBA should continue to meaningfully contribute to the effort.
King County has certainly made progress. Two recently announced changes could greatly decrease the number of youth in detention: (1) the addition of an evening on-call judge and (2) reduction of arrest warrants that result in automatic detention. Even before these changes were adopted, the number of youth in detention had dropped from a daily average of 200 in the 1990s to an average of 60 in 2013.1
Yet children of color continue to be over represented. In 2014, 51 percent of the juveniles in detention were black.2 In contrast, only 10 percent of the King County juvenile population is black.3 An alliance of legal organizations recently submitted a piece in the Bar Bulletin and observed, “what frequently distinguishes the youth who sit in detention for weeks or months from the youth who are released back to their families and communities is not the severity of the crime, but the resources of their families and their access to the health care and community programs that keep them safe and supported.”4
The decision to create a KCBA task force on juvenile justice reform is aligned with KCBA’s track record of identifying and addressing barriers and systems that create disproportionate and over-representation of minorities and historically disadvantaged communities in the justice system. First, we prioritize pro bono funding in our budget — allocating almost 40 percent of the annual budget to pro bono policies. Second, many of our public policy positions address inequities in our legal system.
In 2005, KCBA created a task force to address the over-representation of minorities and low-income individuals in the criminal justice system, paying particular attention to drug offenses.5 As part of that work, the Drug Policy Task Force included a “Children’s and Youth Work Group” to examine children and how they enter the civil and criminal justice processes, the schools, social services, and the health care system. In 2007, KCBA adopted a resolution that recognized that the criminalization of marijuana led to a number of detrimental outcomes, including pressure to build costly prisons. That task force recommended the legalization of marijuana.
In 2012, the KCBA Board voted to support the construction of a new Children Youth and Family Center that will replace the dilapidated Youth Services Center (YSC),6 which houses Juvenile Court, Juvenile Services and the Juvenile Detention Center. The proposal included a plan to build a smaller detention facility, but also recognized that state law required the inclusion of a detention facility when a county has a juvenile courthouse. The vote followed a unanimous vote by the King County Council to support the ballot measure to fund construction. Likewise, in April 2012 the Board of Governors of the Washington State Bar Association voted unanimously to support the Center.
In February 2012, then-KCBA President Joe Bringman noted that subjecting litigants and their families to subpar conditions, “can only give them (and their families) the subliminal message that society doesn’t much value them.”7 Looking through the lens of what is happening in Flint and Detroit, Michigan, we can see that deplorable infrastructure and building conditions, if not properly addressed, can severely diminish the work of dedicated professionals and substantially interfere with students’ success in school.
Teachers in Detroit described working in classrooms that, because of HVAC issues, were as warm as 90 degrees while outside temperatures were in the 20s.8 Ceiling tiles had fallen and were not replaced. A gym, a bathroom, and other rooms were off limits because of water damage. The smell of mold permeated the air.9
The YSC looks eerily similar to the footage from the schools in Detroit. The water runs brown in the first-floor drinking fountains due to rusted pipes. The HVAC system does not work on the top floors, causing unbearable working conditions in the summer. The building contains PCBs, a chemical compound banned by the U.S. government in the 1970s as a health hazard. Quite simply, the YSC is uninhabitable.
KCBA has remained committed to identifying opportunities to identify and remove barriers in our legal system that may lead to disproportionate representation of minorities in the legal system. A few are highlighted here.
In 2013, KCBA adopted a resolution to abolish the death penalty and specifically acknowledged that application of the death penalty was discriminatory.10 That year, KCBA addressed juvenile justice reform, including a program to assist juveniles with petitions for resentencing and legislation prohibiting life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles.11
In 2014, our Public Policy Committee began examining barriers to re-entry by individuals with a criminal history. Shortly thereafter, in 2015, KCBA adopted a resolution calling for a certificate of restoration of opportunity that would allow a person with a criminal record to obtain relief from a statutory or regulatory bar to occupational licensing and employment solely by reason of a prior criminal record.12
Identifying ways to improve our justice system and remove racial inequities has been top of mind for a number of KCBA presidents. In January 2015, then-KCBA President Anne Daly wrote a column suggesting that the county should consider requiring all new legislation to undergo a racial and ethnic impact statement.13 In February 2014, then-KCBA President Richard Mitchell remarked on his personal experiences as he tracked Professor Michele Alexander’s finding that African Americans experience disproportionate contact with the criminal justice system.14 Alexander had delivered her compelling finding at KCBA’s MLK Luncheon that year. Mitchell called for ways to remove the barriers to re-entry.
Like many of the KCBA presidents before me, I remain committed to our youth and juvenile justice reform. I look forward to the work of our Juvenile Justice Reform Task Force and welcome your participation.
Kim Tran is the president of the King County Bar Association. She is in-house counsel with Microsoft’s Global Employment and Migration Law Group. She can be reached at 425-705-7609 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this column are her own and not those of her employer, Microsoft.
1 See http://www.kingcounty.gov/depts/executive-services/children-family-justice-center/juvenile-justice.aspx.
2 See http://kcyouthjustice.com/racial-inequality.
4 See KCBA Bar Bulletin, February 2016, “A Shared Vision To End Youth Incarceration,” submitted by TeamChild, Columbia Legal Services, Legal Counsel for Youth and Children, Public Defender Association, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, Incarcerated Mothers Advocacy Project, Street Youth Legal Advocates of Washington (SYLAW), Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality, Seattle University School of Law Access to Justice Institute.
5 See www.kcba.org/druglaw.
6 April 2012 meeting of the King County Bar Association Board of Trustees.
7 See President’s Column, Bar Bulletin, February 2012.
8 See Detroit Free Press, January 12, 2016, “Duggan: Some school conditions break your heart.”
9 See Detroit Free Press, January 16, 2016, Letters, “What’s it Like to Teach in Detroit Public Schools?”
10 See KCBA Board Resolution dated January 16, 2013 – www.kcba.org/deathpenalty.
11 See KCBA Board of Trustees Meeting Minutes, November 2012 and February 2013.
12 See KCBA Board of Trustees Meeting Minutes, February 2015.
13 See KCBA Bar Bulletin, President’s Page, January 2015.
14 See KCBA Bar Bulletin, President’s Page, February 2014.