Civic Agenda: Early interventions keep Whatcom children out of justice system

Second of two parts

Statewide juvenile offender filings dropped 68 percent from 1998-2014. During the same period, Whatcom County achieved a reduction of 80 percent, reaching 81 percent by the end of 2015. This reduction in filings is consistent with the drop of arrests, which I also track on a regular basis.

While I don’t think there is any one thing we are doing as a state, or a community, that has led to this amazing reduction, I do think it is a combination of things which have created such positive results.

We have invested greatly in evidence based programs that are proven to reduce recidivism, however, we only have the capacity to serve a portion of eligible youth.

In the past, many offenders coming through the system were treated basically the same regardless of their offense or other factors in their life. Most conditions directed the youth to go to school, obey a curfew, abstain from alcohol and drugs, report to a probation officer, submit to random urinalysis, complete community service and attend counseling. Violation of these conditions would result in the youth returning to court to answer to the judge. A standard consequence of the violation was a sentence to detention. The more the youth violated, the longer the sentence, up to 30 days.

Probation officers also had wide discretion on how they supervised their caseloads with autonomy on when to take a youth back to court, as well as the sanction they could seek on a violation. The major focus of probation in those days was monitoring and accountability with less emphasis on rehabilitation services they needed to keep from re-offending.

Since then there have been a number of changes in the law as well as the way we do business.

Laws changed

In 1995 RCW 13.32A, commonly known as the BECCA Bill, came into effect. The purpose was to protect children who are at risk, run away from home and truant from school.

One of the greatest risk factors identified in predicting a youth entering the juvenile justice is not being in school. Truancy laws require a school to inform a student’s parents of unexcused absences and to meet with the student and parents if unexcused absences continue to accumulate. If a student has seven unexcused absences in a month, or 10 in an academic year, the school district must file a truancy petition in juvenile court. At-risk youth petitions provide parents an option to obtain assistance from the court if the child is absent from home for at least 72 consecutive hours; is beyond parental control such that his/her behavior endangers the health, safety, or welfare of the child or any other person; has a substance abuse problem for which there are no pending criminal charges. Child in need of services petitions may be filed by the child, a parent, or the Department of Social and Health Services to provide court intervention to youth not otherwise under the jurisdiction of the court.

These three programs under the BECCA Bill provide for court intervention prior to becoming criminally involved. I believe these early interventions are a contributing factor to fewer youth entering the system.

Reducing recidivism

In 1997 the Washington State Legislature enacted the Community Juvenile Accountability Act to test the use of “research-based” programs to reduce juvenile offender recidivism. The act required the use of a risk assessment to assign youth to these programs. The Washington Association of Juvenile Court Administrators worked with the Washington State Institute for Public Policy to develop the Washington State Juvenile Court Assessment. Implemented in 1999, the first stage is a pre-screen assessment completed for all youth placed on probation. The second stage, a full assessment, is required for youth assessed as moderate or high risk to reoffend on the pre-screen. This full assessment identifies a youth’s risk and protective factor profile to guide rehabilitative efforts. This assessment, which has been continually validated, has also been adopted by over 18 other states around the nation, including Florida, Wyoming, Illinois and New York State.

This assessment not only helps establish the level of supervision, but also gives the probation officers information on factors in the youth’s life that can help them stay out of trouble (protective factors) and those factors that contribute to the youth’s delinquency (risk factors) allowing probation officers to dedicate their resources to the youth who are higher risk to reoffend.

Risk assessment

Information gathered from the risk assessment has led us to make significant changes in the way we supervise youth. For those youth on formal probation, each county has various resources available to address the risk and protective factors in their community. I believe Whatcom County has done a good job in utilizing the data available from the assessment to meet the needs of our community. In the past probation officers had wide discretion and autonomy, however, now have standards consistent with our balanced and restorative justice philosophy and have greatly streamlined our approach to supervision. In addition to consistent supervision standards, with individualized case plans all alleged violations of probation are staffed by the juvenile probation officers as a group. A group recommendation is developed that holistically addresses the violation, in a restorative justice manner with an equal emphasis on community safety, accountability and competency. The focus is not just holding youth accountable and keeping the community safe, but an emphasis on helping them obtain the skills they need so they don’t reoffend in the future.

County programs

We have invested greatly in evidence-based programs that are proven to reduce recidivism, however, we only have the capacity to serve a portion of eligible youth. Our county offers the following evidence-based programs:

Aggression Replacement Training: a 10-week, 30-hour cognitive-behavioral program administered to groups of 8 to 12 juvenile offenders three times per week. ART has three main curriculum components — structured learning training; anger control training, and moral education.

Functional Family Therapy: a structured family-based intervention that uses a multi-step approach to enhance protective factors and reduce risk factors in the family.

Coordination of Services (locally called Community Links): an educational program for low-risk juvenile offenders that provides information about services available in the community.

In addition to our work, I am aware of the tremendous positive impact other agencies are having, such as our Health Department’s prevention focused outreach to the schools and community. These prevention efforts, along with numerous community youth serving agencies, contribute to the tremendous success of keeping youth from entering and recycling through the system.

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.