OLYMPIA — Democratic lawmakers are pushing a bill that would end juvenile detention in the state for status offenses like truancy or running away, which are only illegal due to the age of the perpetrator.
Washington has for years detained more youth who have not committed a serious crime than any other state in the nation, according to reports by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The bill, which passed through the Senate Thursday, would phase out all detention for status offenses by July 1, 2020, and until then would separate all status offenders from youth who have committed serious crimes.
There were 1,781 status-offense incarcerations in the state in 2016, said Liz Trautman, director of public policy & advocacy for The Mockingbird Society, an advocacy group that lobbies the state for improvements in foster care and youth homelessness. That would constitute 30 percent of all status-offense detentions nationwide in 2014, the last year for which there is federally reported data.
Zack Zibrosky, a member of the Mockingbird Society, spoke in support of the bill at a public hearing early January. Zibrosky was placed into foster care at 15, and due to a misdemeanor on his record, he found himself surrounded by juvenile sex offenders.
Zibrosky felt unsafe and unhappy in that environment and ran away, for which he was arrested and put into detention. When he was let out of detention, he was put back into the group home he felt was unsafe.
Zibrosky said he needed support and a better living situation, not frequent detentions.
“Youth who get arrested for status offenses, particularly repeatedly, need support from someone who cares,” Zibrosky said. “Detention is a place that was designed for criminally-involved youth, so why is it OK to send youth to detention who haven’t committed crimes?”
In 2016, 13.4 percent of all juvenile detentions in Washington occurred when no serious crime was committed, according to a report by the Washington State Center for Court Research (WSCCR). The statistic varies wildly by county: the report found that 20 percent of juvenile detentions in Grant County in 2016 were for status offenses, a rate that rises to almost 50 percent in Grays Harbor County and drops to less than one percent in San Juan County.
Washington has a long relationship with youth detention for status offenses due to “Becca petitions,” named after a 13-year-old foster youth who frequently ran away and was raped and murdered in 1993. Becca’s adopted parents had little recourse to bring their child home when she was still alive and pushed for legal changes that would put the rights of parents above the rights of children.
Now, when parents and judges file to detain a runaway, truant or chemically-dependent child, they do so with a Becca petition. The median detention lasted less than 24 hours, and more than a third of minors detained once were detained two or more times that year, according to the WSCCR.
Not all Becca petitions end in a detention. About a quarter of petitions in Grant County resulted in detention in 2016, ranking it the third most likely to do so after Stevens and Grays Harbor counties.
Alan Hancock, an Island County Superior Court Judge, testified against the bill as a representative of the Superior Court Judges Association. Before the Becca bill was passed, Hancock said, there were two avenues by which families and children could get help: if the child committed a crime, or if the parent was abusive or neglectful. Otherwise, judges and parents were limited.
“Let’s not go back to the days of the early ’90s when juvenile crime was rampant, when runaway behavior was a serious problem for which there was no remedy,” Hancock said. “Part and parcel of the tools we must have available is the ability to enforce our orders.”
Sen. Mark Miloscia expressed concerns about how the legal system could hold youth accountable without status offense detentions. Zibrosky balked at this suggestion.
“If someone’s having problems in their life, what are you holding them accountable for?” Zibrosky said. “For me, I was just trying to feel safe, so you’re holding me accountable and punishing me for trying to feel safe?”
Critics of the practice also point to the disproportionate targeting of minorities for petitions and detentions. A WSCCR report to the state legislature found that African American, Native American and Latino minors are disproportionately likely to have a Becca petition filed against them, and Latino minors are 71 percent more likely than their white peers to be detained as a result of a petition.
The bill passed largely along party lines through the state Senate Thursday and has not been scheduled for a committee hearing in the House.
Editor’s note: This version clarifies reporting years for status-offense incarcerations in the state.