Should Washington Prohibit Juvenile Detention For Truant Students?

Grays Harbor County uses its juvenile detention facility to lock up non-criminal status offenders for contempt of court more than any other county in the state.
Grays Harbor County uses its juvenile detention facility to lock up non-criminal status offenders for contempt of court more than any other county in the state. CREDIT: AUSTIN JENKINS/N3

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In recent years, Washington state has led the nation in locking up kids for running away, skipping school and other non-criminal behavior. Now state lawmakers are considering whether to ban juvenile detention for “status offenses”.

When Zach Zibrosky was 15 years old he went into foster care. Unhappy with his foster family, he ran away. Soon he ended up in juvenile lock-up—not for committing a crime, but because he was a runaway.

Zibroksy told a panel of lawmakers the experience made him feel like a criminal.

“I was put in handcuffs, transported in a police car, put in a holding cell and even strip searched a few times,” he said.

Another youth told lawmakers he was first locked up at age 10 because he was out past curfew.

We first reported on this issue three years ago. At the time, Washington’s Grays Harbor County was locking up more truants and runaways than any other county in the state. Since then the numbers have dropped.

But Democratic state Sen. Jeannie Darnielle said it’s time to end the practice altogether.

“In my mind this is a perfect opportunity for us to realize what other states are realizing,” she said. “That this is a time to do an intervention with a family as opposed to incarcerating their child.”

Darneille has proposed legislation to outlaw detention for status offenders by July 2020. In the meantime it would also require juvenile detention facilities to keep status offenders separate from juveniles who are in detention for criminal acts.

But some judges and juvenile court administrators say detention is an important tool that helps them get kids to comply with court orders.

“I can tell a child to go to school, I can tell the child to quit running away to their pimp, I can tell the child to get into drug treatment,” Cowlitz County Superior Court Judge Stephen Warning said. “If I don’t have the ability to use a sanction they don’t have to cooperate with, the child is free to look me in the eye and say ‘buzz off old man, I don’t have to pay attention to you’ and there’s nothing that I can do about it.”

The bill has already passed the Washington Senate and is now before the state House.

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