September 2015 Bar Bulletin
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Juvenile Detention Evaluation Offers Hope for Solutions


With Judge Wesley Saint ClairChief Juvenile Court Judge

People talk about data-driven decisions as if we will all know what to do when we study the numbers. The more time we spend thinking about the data around juvenile justice, the more we realize it is like a Rorschach test.

Lately we've been undergoing an evaluation by the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, which promises to provide some ideas for further reducing our use of detention. JDAI, as it is called, is a national project funded by the Casey Foundation, and our evaluation was done with the assistance of the Burns Institute. There are no more respected organizations in the world of juvenile justice than these and we are anxiously awaiting their recommendations.

The sneak preview of their report that we were given is what led us to start pondering how to lead the conversation around the numbers that will likely come out of the evaluation. Some people in our system will be delighted to hear that JDAI has worked all over the country and they tell us that King County has about the lowest incarceration rate of any urban jurisdiction in the United States, as well as the lowest use of detention for probation violations in the country. We have roughly 447 youth on probation at the moment, and only five of them are in detention.

As many readers are aware, there are many critics who believe our numbers could be still lower, if not zero. JDAI is likely to recommend that we "automatically" release all of the youth who score below a certain level on a tool that rates their likely failure to appear and likely risk to the community. When youth below this level appear before a judge one to four days after their arrest, we release them 82 percent of the time. Why not release them immediately? We could arm each of our judges with an iPad and we could take turns reviewing youth as they come into detention.

There are a number of challenges to taking this approach; for one - many of the "low scoring" youth have been arrested for alleged physical violence toward their parents or siblings. They need some period for everyone to cool off. Until we develop a reception center for youth like this, detention is the only place we have to put them during this period. Second, we have a fairly high rate of "parent refusals" - in other words, parents who decline to pick up their children when they are released from detention. This results in a call to CPS from detention.

Still, we as a court are committed to finding a way to get those 82 percent of kids who will be released anyway into an appropriate alternative as quickly as possible. If we were to release or divert all of the low-scoring youth, we could reduce detention admissions by almost half. That sounds great, and it would be great, but the fact is that if we were to take those youth out of detention, the youth remaining would be predominantly youth of color - 90 percent youth of color, or more.

Let's say our detention population dropped from an average of 55 to 40. As of mid-August, we had 35 youth in detention for 14 days or longer. Of those 35, all but one were youth of color. Of the 35, some 22 were charged with violent felonies against persons: first- and second-degree robbery; first- and second-degree assault, and several sex offenses. A few were charged with property crime. Youth held for such crimes usually have a long history, multiple pending charges or a history of failing to appear for court. One thing that is true about felony crimes against persons or property - they start with a 911 call. That means we cannot blame law enforcement for these charges.

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