Op-Ed

Civic Agenda: Whatcom diversion programs reduce need for juvenile incarceration

Teen Court begins at the Whatcom County Courthouse in 1997. In partnership with Northwest Youth Services, Teen Court hears cases involving youth who are facing a second discretionary diversion or who failed a traditional diversion contract.
Teen Court begins at the Whatcom County Courthouse in 1997. In partnership with Northwest Youth Services, Teen Court hears cases involving youth who are facing a second discretionary diversion or who failed a traditional diversion contract. The Bellingham Herald

First of two parts

It seems today’s news is filled with stories of horrific crimes, some of which involve juvenile offenders. Public perception reflects a juvenile crime problem that is out of control, and a system that is broken and in need of repair. It is of little surprise that many people don’t know about the great work being done around the nation, in Washington state and this community in both prevention and intervention to keep juveniles from coming into and returning to the system.

In 1998 there were 35,651 juvenile offender filings in Washington state, and Whatcom County accounted for 1,504 of those. The county’s 10-17 population (the age group cohort most likely to be referred to juvenile court for delinquent behavior) was 19,462.

A number changes, both legislative and policy related, which I believe have greatly impacted this tremendous reduction of youth entering and returning to the juvenile justice system.

The 1999 Whatcom County Law and Justice Plan identified the need for an 88-bed juvenile detention center by 2010 to meet the needs of the growing population and anticipated juvenile crime. The 32-bed juvenile detention center, on the sixth floor of the county courthouse, was deemed too small to deal with the number of youth needing to be incarcerated. In fact, at that time it wasn’t uncommon to have 50 juveniles in the overcrowded facility. For safety reasons, we had to cap the population at 50. When we hit this threshold, each new youth being brought into the facility meant the judge had to release one.

Whatcom County wasn’t alone in this process. During the mid to late ’90s many counties were increasing their detention capacities to deal with overcrowding and the continued predicted increase in population and juvenile crime. Around the nation, predictions of the “super predator” drove legislation in most states to get tougher on juvenile crime.

Demographics

In 1999, our county’s 10-17 population dropped to 18,725, and the county’s filings fell as well. At the time, everyone thought the same thing: demographics. Over the next several years, however, the county’s juvenile population continued to increase, yet filings and juvenile arrests have continued to decrease.

Statewide juvenile filings in 2014 dropped to 11,578, a reduction of 68 percent. In Whatcom County that number dropped to 301 in the same time period, a reduction of 80 percent. The juvenile 10-17 population remains over 19,000. In 2015, the number of juvenile filings has fallen ever further to 289. This reduction in filings is consistent with the drop of arrests, which I also track on a regular basis.

Our detention center had average daily population of just 16 youth in 2015. On average, two of those were being held for other jurisdictions. In the last decade, the number of juvenile state institutions has been reduced from six to three as commitments have plummeted.

Diverting cases

Our prosecutor’s office also does an excellent job in diverting cases from court whenever appropriate consistent with public safety. Diversion can be more immediate and effective than a long drawn out court process. Approximately 50 percent of the criminal cases referred to the prosecutor’s office are diverted to juvenile probation.

Diversion is the least restrictive way of dealing with juveniles who are referred for misdemeanors, gross misdemeanors and some class C felonies. A juvenile who qualifies for a diversion does not go to court, there is no trial before a judge, and the juvenile is not placed on probation. The juvenile and their parents/guardians will meet with either a community accountability board or with the assigned probation counselor to determine the diversion agreement requirements.

Teen Court

Youth in diversion may also be referred to Teen Court. In partnership with Northwest Youth Services since 1997, Teen Court hears cases involving youth who are facing a second discretionary diversion or who failed a traditional diversion contract. The offenses involved are misdemeanors, and do not include offenses involving weapons, domestic violence or gang activity. The offender admits to the offense, as in traditional diversion, and then goes before a jury of high school students charged with determining the penalties to be assessed.

The teen jury is made up of a mix of non-offender volunteers and those who previously had their own charges resolved in teen court. Some high school students serve as judges, others as advocates presenting the case to the jury on behalf of the state and the accused. Other students may serve as bailiffs, clerks and in other capacities as needed. Teachers from the schools act as advisers to the youth teams, and the advisory board made up of students guides the program.

In addition to reducing filings, we have greatly reduced our reliance on juvenile detention, putting off the day we will need a new facility. We have looked to additional means of accountability and giving back to the community. Community service provides such an opportunity. We also want to help make sure the youth’s obligations to the court and community are meaningful. A youth assigned community service has the opportunity to give back to their community in a restorative way through collaboration with a number of community service sites. Some also provide the youth the opportunity to learn new skills that better themselves, as well as service to the community.

Collaboration, data

Whatcom County has been part of the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative since 2004. This nationwide initiative isn’t about being soft on crime or not holding kids accountable, but rather addressing core strategies to assure we are detaining those youth who need to be detained, and keeping others in the community consistent with public safety. The strategies include: collaboration amongst stakeholders; use of data to drive decisions; objective admission criteria; providing alternatives to detention; expedited case processes; looking into special detention cases; monitoring conditions of confinement; and reducing racial and ethnic disparities amongst those detained.

I am often asked, in my personal and professional opinion, what is the reason for such a dramatic reduction in juvenile crime. While I can only speak to the work being done in our juvenile court in conjunction with our community partners, there have been a number changes, both legislative and policy related, which I believe have greatly impacted this tremendous reduction of youth entering and returning to the juvenile justice system.

Coming Sunday: How Whatcom County has reduced juvenile offender filings.

David Reynolds is the director of Whatcom County Superior Court administration. He serves as administrator for both Superior Court and Juvenile Court and also holds the office of Superior Court clerk. This is one of a series of monthly Civic Agenda reports The Bellingham Herald invited Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws to provide to share updates about Whatcom County issues and projects. He invites citizens to contact him at 360-778-5200 or jlouws@co.whatcom.wa.us.

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