Thanks to a new executive order signed Thursday, King County will begin looking at juvenile justice through a public health lens.

King County Executive Dow Constantine has signed an executive order to restructure the county’s juvenile detention system. The county will become the first jurisdiction in the nation to treat youth detention as a public health issue for a brief study period.

“In many ways, youth crime is a sign of ill health,” said Seattle Mayor Tim Burgess at a Nov. 16 press conference. “So it makes perfect sense that public health officials would take the lead on this project.”

County law enforcement —and currently, several Seattle agencies as well, by spoken agreement — will deal with youth offenders differently, focusing on restorative justice, empathetic response and reduced recidivism until at least Feb. 15. The goal is keeping youth out of juvenile detention.

That’s the deadline for Public Health–Seattle and King County, along with partnering agencies that include the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, Department of Community and Human Services, Office of Performance, Strategy and Budget, Office of Labor Relations and other county and city stakeholders. By Feb. 15, the county wants to come back with a permanent plan to reform juvenile detention in King County.

“Public health is all about prevention,” said Seattle and King County Public Health Director Patty Hayes. “That’s preventing tobacco use, that’s lowering the rate of teen pregnancy. We are looking to apply that same approach to juvenile detention.”

What this might actually mean in practice is rather than time spent incarcerated while awaiting trial or any of the myriad legal machinations juvenile offenders may have to wait in detention for, they could spend time working with counselors dealing with trauma, attending workshops with parents to learn new skills and other paths to avoid ending up in the adult justice system in the future.

And there are effective and simple ways to accomplish that, said Dominique Davis, co-founder and CEO of Community Passageways, a restorative justice program that helps keeps teenagers from falling into trouble with the justice system.

“We’ve dealt with young males involved in gun charges, in violence,” said Dominique “Coach Dom” Daviswho coaches at Rainier Beach High School and runs the 180 Program to help youth facing criminal charges. “The first thing we do is deal with the trauma they might not even know they’ve been through.”

By dealing with trauma (whether it be a broken home, violence committed against them or near them, drug use or any number of other issues) these young, mostly male offenders can be diverted from the prison system, supported while they are there and helped to avoid high recidivism rates associated with repeat criminal behavior.

King County Deputy Prosecutor Jimmy Hung said that priority-one for the county is to protect those who live there. But even when a youth offender commits a violent crime, there are ways to interact with that person in an empathetic, trauma-focused way that may divert similar actions from that person again or their peers.

He referenced one child who assaulted a police officer. Standard protocol would be to arrest and charge the individual, followed by substantial jail time. Hung’s office asked the officer if he would be open to a restorative justice path. The offender was sentenced to 25 hours of ride-alongs with the officer.

“This allowed the offender to see the risks and challenges of the job and kept him out of incarceration,” Hung said. “If you ask most victims what they want, they say they want to prevent it from happening to somebody else.

Constantine said the emphasis of the project was rehabilitation and diversion. By Washington law, juvenile detention cannot be “punishment,” so King County was following that to its logical end.

Burgess was a Seattle Police officer in the 1970s, and said he had seen the city’s justice system through several lenses.

“Two years ago, the City Council and I signed unanimously a goal for zero detention of youth,” he said. “I’m convinced it is misguided and counter productive to respond to juvenile crimes with incarceration.”

Rhonda Berry, assistant county executive, said the county is committed to reaching that elusive goal of zero youth detention.

“We are changing the trajectory for youth and families,” she said. “We want to divert youth from contact with the justice system in the first place. We are changing the types of questions we ask of youth and about them.”

Constantine’s Best Starts for Kids program uses prevention and early intervention for young children, and the executive order signed on Nov. 16 would use similar strategies to make sure children from birth to 18 are diverted away from bad endings. King County has taken steps toward reducing youth in detention since at least 1998.

The February deadline will see a full fiscal analysis in the context of a 2019-2020 budget proposal while maintaining legal responsibilities for juvenile detention. 

A third-party validator, the Vera Institute of Justice, will review King County’s juvenile detention policies and practices and recommend reforms.

According to a release, the number of staff (131) at the juvenile detention center for the county would remain consistent through any reorganization.

Meanwhile, construction continues on a new $210 million court service and youth detention center to replace the aging Youth Services Center in Seattle's Central District.

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