An effort to reauthorize the more than 40-year-old Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act is making its way through Congress, and if approved, one particular piece of it would affect Washington more than any other state.
Judges currently are allowed to detain youths for noncriminal offenses like truancy and running away from home if they have violated a court order. As it happens, Washington jails more youths for these types of infractions than any other state in the country — way more.
The federal legislation under consideration would phase that rule out over three years.
Lawmakers should proceed with caution, however. In their effort to help troubled youngsters, they need to make sure they are not stripping away a tool of last resort without offering a better alternative.
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There needs to be a uniformed, safe way to help teens whose only crime is skipping school or fleeing foster care. Allowing them to roam the streets is dangerous, but placing them next to hardened, young criminal offenders in juvenile detention is also not an answer.
Some kind of balance needs to be found.
Washington leads the country in detaining young, noncriminal offenders, thanks primarily to the Becca Bill. The groundbreaking law was passed in 1994 and named after a 13-year-old Tacoma runaway who was found murdered along the Spokane River. At the time, her parents said they felt helpless and had no way of forcing her to stay home.
After the girl’s death, lawmakers passed legislation that allows parents to ask judges to intervene when their children run away from home or continually skip school. If the students do not comply, the Becca Bill allows judges to send them to juvenile detention for up to seven days.
Many juvenile justice advocates say an unforeseen consequence of the Becca Bill is that many kids with noncriminal offenses are pushed into the mix with kids who have committed serious — even violent — crimes. That may do them more harm than good, according to a recent story by The News Tribune in Tacoma.
The News Tribune report said that in 2011, which is the latest federal data available, judges in Washington sent noncriminal offenders to juvenile detention 2,705 times, more than twice as often as any other state. Kentucky was the second highest state for detaining juveniles that year, with 1,048 teens being sent away. Since then, however, Kentucky has changed its law and now discourages the practice, according to the newspaper article.
Juvenile justice advocates say confining noncriminal teens does not change their behavior, and what they need is intervention, not detention. But the question then becomes how to force a teen into those intervention programs when they refuse to cooperate?
Lawmakers should not be too hasty in eliminating a judge’s option of last resort, but it’s clear incarcerating juveniles for noncriminal behavior is not the answer. This issue needs a thorough discussion before a law that was designed to keep runaways off the streets is abandoned with no alternative in its place.