Reform coming to King County’s youth probation program

2014 Detention admissions broken down by offense and race

Click on the graphic above for a larger view of 2014 youth detention admissions broken down by offense and race.

By April 2016, King County’s use of youth detention for probation violators could be half of what it was last spring.

That’s the goal King County Superior Court set for itself earlier this year. The target could significantly reduce the number of youth detention admissions and possibly reduce the now highly disproportionate number of black youth in detention. Of the 467 youth admitted to detention last year, 329 were of color, including 196 black youth.

“The Court believes that we should be guided by research that shows detention is not a good place for kids,” said Superior Court Presiding Judge Susan Craighead. “More time in detention does not necessarily lead to greater compliance with the court order the probation officers are trying to enforce.”

Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative assessment underway
Now Superior Court has enlisted the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), a project funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, to assess and make recommendations to improve the County’s juvenile court programs, including probation, and to reduce the use of detention overall.

JDAI representatives have been interviewing staff, judges, community members and Executive Dow Constantine. They are working with juvenile court’s data analysts to generate the information needed to produce a report later this summer. By September, the County expects their recommendations will be rolled out to staff and judges.

“There are people at juvenile court pretty much working full-time on this,” said Rand Young, JDAI’s Washington state coordinator. “Everyone’s been open and looking for ways to be more effective at keeping youth out of detention.”

Judge Craighead said the County’s recently hired juvenile court director and a new youth probation manager to be hired later this year will then use JDAI’s feedback to optimize interventions probation counselors use to encourage youth to comply with court orders.

Tackling racial disproportionality
The County is particularly interested in program recommendations that would help reduce racial disproportionality in youth detention. While the County’s overall youth detention population has decreased more than 60 percent over the last decade, the proportion of black youth in detention has grown quickly. Black youth made up almost half of the County’s youth detention admissions in 2014, even though only about ten percent of the County’s total youth population is black.

“What we’ve seen is white youth have benefitted more from some [detention prevention] strategies than youth of color,” Young said.

But Young added that King County is far from being the only place in the nation facing the same problem: No juvenile court in the country has been able to reduce its juvenile detention population without seeing the proportion of youth of color in detention increase.

“We’re moving into some difficult territory to make changes, and some changes need to happen in juvenile court, but also in law enforcement, and the prosecuting attorney’s office,” Young said. “Then the other part is a lot of work needs to happen in the community.”

Young and Craighead said they’re already seeing some reductions in detention use for probation violators since JDAI started working with probation staff and are hoping reductions continue as more changes are implemented over the next year.