Every day in Washington State, children are placed behind bars for truancy, curfew violations, and running away from home. Issues that used to be resolved at home or in school are now sending children into detention centers, and our children are worse off for it. This legislative session, Washingtonians have a chance to respond, and make sure children are not needlessly locked up.
The purpose of juvenile facilities is to temporarily house youth who are a public safety risk, but these facilities are packed with young people who do not belong there. Approximately 75 percent of youth in detention are held for nonviolent charges and status offenses. In juvenile cases, a “status offense” involves conduct that would not be a crime if it were committed by an adult—for example, truancy, curfew violations or possession of tobacco.
The 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) prohibits the placement of status offenders in secure confinement. However, ten years later, the valid court order (VCO) exception was added, which permitted courts to incarcerate children if they disobeyed a VCO. A VCO permits courts to order a youth to stop specified noncriminal behavior. For example, if a child is told by a judge they must attend school, and the child is truant, the judge would be able to incarcerate the child.
In this way, VCOs are also the most common mechanism for youth with school discipline issues to enter the criminal justice system—often referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” On the federal level, there has been a recognition by many lawmakers that the VCO exception has been detrimental for youth, and many have discussed phasing it out while reauthorizing the JJDPA. On a state level, numbers from 2014 suggest that Washington uses VCO exceptions to detain status offenders more than any other state.
Confinement does not address the underlying reasons for maladaptive behaviors, and can even make such behaviors worse. Once incarcerated, not only are youth more likely to offend later in life, but the very experience of being in court increases the likelihood of future criminal activity. Instead, community-based alternatives that have already been developed and tested to serve youth safely in the community should be used.
Lawmakers are currently considering a bill in Washington to close the VCO loophole and phase out detention for status offenses by 2020. Whether one looks at this bill through the lens of compassion, public safety or fiscal prudence–whether one identifies as right-leaning or a left-leaning–good policy is good policy. Juvenile detention facilities have become overfilled with youth who are there on technical violations and status offense charges. For the sake of our children, it is time to give them attention, instead of detention.