photo of hallway and prison doors in a corrections facility

OPINION: State Bill Raising Age for Juvenile Prosecution Would Make Seattle Safer

by Luna Reyna, contributing columnist

Brain maturity throughout life was assumed to be largely finished after puberty. A person’s teenage years have been considered a time that a person’s body and mind goes through dramatic change which allows them to transition into self-sufficiency and responsible adulthood. Recent cognitive neuroscience has proven otherwise. From the ages of 18-25 a person’s brain continues to develop in the prefrontal cortex, the area that is responsible for planning, prioritizing, and controlling impulses. With this new understanding, policymakers are reconsidering the ways in which adolescent health and well-being are affected in the criminal legal system.

In January, the Washington State Board of Health (WSBH) and the Governor’s Interagency Council on Health Disparities (GICHD) released a Health Impact Review (HIR) on the impact of criminal legal system involvement for children 8 through 12 years old and emerging adults aged 18 and 19 years old. The review was conducted in order to help determine the potential importance and impacts of a newly proposed Senate bill, SB 5122. With the latest cognitive brain science in mind, the original bill introduced intended to increase the juvenile court jurisdiction’s maximum age limit to 19 and increases the maximum age of presumed incapacity to commit a crime to 13, required charges filed in juvenile court to remain in juvenile court, and would allow juveniles adjudicated for an offense committed at age 18 to serve in a juvenile institution through age 22 and juveniles adjudicated for an offense committed at age 19 to serve in a juvenile institution through age 21. 

On Jan. 19 the Senate Human Services, Reentry & Rehabilitation Committee held a public hearing in which city officials and the public were able to speak to their concerns or their support of this bill. Lael Chester, with the Emerging Adult Justice Project, conducts research on and analyzes promising practices for fair, effective, and developmentally appropriate responses to 18-25-year-olds involved in the criminal legal systems. “This bill would ensure that the juvenile justice system would be serving the right age youth, excluding those who will be harmed, young children, and those who can benefit the most from a rehabilitation juvenile justice system,” Chester explained.

During the hearing Chester said, “Research shows that 18 and 19-year-olds are failing in the adult justice system. They are overrepresented from arrests to incarceration and they have the worst recidivism rates of any age group. Research also shows that the justice system is failing them. Emerging adults have the highest rates of racial disparities of any age group and they also experience particularly poor outcomes. Why? Because the adult justice system doesn’t recognize emerging adults as a distinct developmental group.”

Katherine Hurley, of the King County Dept. of Defense and the Washington Defender Association, also hoped to emphasize the importance of acknowledging the science, saying during the hearing, “One of my first clients was a young black woman. She was 13 years old and I had represented her on a misdemeanor offense in juvenile court. I remember seeing her in the crowded waiting room scared, close to her mom, surrounded by much older individuals. It was very different from the juvenile court experience. She needed support from her community and a system that would center transformation. What she got instead was a felony conviction that devalued her, that limited her future, and by doing so undermined our community’s safety.” This story, Hurley explained, illustrated the ways in which the current systems “compound injustices and magnify the racial inequities that exist throughout our adult and juvenile legal systems.”

Matt Murray, Chief of the Yakima Police Department, spoke next, representing the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs in stark opposition. Murray claimed, “The current juvenile justice system is not the enemy but rather often the only opportunity for intervention. The children who are being exploited don’t show up at the police station or child protective services to ask for help.” Murray went even further to claim that his objection, “is not about throwing away the key or imprisoning juveniles to become better criminals, it’s about ensuring that our system retains the tools needed to assist families and protect children — and in some cases society — from the violent children who need intervention and stability.” 

Russell Brown, director of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys which has been opposed to any progressive juvenile court bills, echoed Murray’s sentiments. According to Brown, “There are services that are available in juvenile court that would simply just not be available if those individuals are determined by this legislature to be incapable of committing a crime.”

While Murray and Brown would like people to believe that over-policing and incarcerating youth are for their own safety, decreased involvement in the criminal legal system would improve health outcomes throughout the lives of these youth, according to the HIR. “I think it’s ridiculous to assume that criminalizing behavior is the only gateway to getting a young person services that they need to be healthy, whole, and live fully,” said Sean Goode, director of Choose 180, a nonprofit organization that works to transform systems of injustice while supporting the young people who are disproportionately impacted by those systems.

“What we’ve [the State juvenile legal system] done is created an on-ramp to services that require a young person to first be criminalized to get access to them,” Goode told the Emerald in an interview. “Imagine the only way you could see a doctor was by ambulance and through the emergency room. Through a public health lens, essentially what he [Murray] was saying is that the only way that folks can access the services they need to be healthy and whole is by being brought through an emergency room or in this consideration brought by police through the criminal legal system, which isn’t a place that actually helps young people thrive.”

In fact, involvement in the criminal legal system has been proven to do just the opposite. “Individuals who are incarcerated are more likely to experience chronic medical conditions, infectious diseases, increased psychiatric disorders, and a greater risk of mortality upon release,” the GICHD said in its HIR report. Furthermore, “research shows that those with a history of incarceration have a significantly greater likelihood of major depression, life dissatisfaction, and mood disorders when compared to individuals who do not have a history of incarceration and that effects persist after release.” Juveniles who are incarcerated are also four times more likely to die by suicide than those who have never been incarcerated. The HIR notes in its findings: “In the only study to examine the longitudinal impacts of youth incarceration on adult health, ‘history of child incarceration [at ages 7 through 13 years] was associated with the highest rates of subsequent poor adult health across all four health variables,’ including self-reported general health, physical function (e.g., ability to climb stairs), depression, and suicidality.”  

“It’s deeply problematic when anybody who’s involved in one of these systems that cause historical harm to Black and Brown communities sees themselves as a catalyst for getting help to those communities,” Goode explained. “What that tells me is that they believe the only hope for underserved spaces is to make sure that those young people and families somehow become system-involved, and that’s simply not the case. We are a much more resourceful people than folks in the white dominant culture give us credit for.”

The nonprofit Choose 180 is a great example of this. Choose 180 “partners with people who have historically caused harm,” according to Goode. “Folks like prosecuting attorney’s offices, juvenile court, school districts, and [we] work with them to deconstruct those systems of injustice, while supporting young people who would regularly get referred to those institutions — but instead providing an off-ramp from the criminal legal system back to community so people can get community instead of courtrooms, and receive grace instead of guilt.”

Young people who would have been criminalized are diverted to Choose 180, where nearly 100% of those who engage don’t return to the criminal legal system within 12 months. The work Choose 180 does is also performed through a public health lens. “We really position ourselves like an emergency room,” Goode explained. “When we’re at our best, we’re triaging young people, helping them get well enough, and then connecting them out to primary care and specialty practitioners to help them sustain their commitment to a new direction. That could look like case managers, tutors, it could look like mentorship, a variety of different things, but we want to be a connector to make sure that we’re building community around young people so they have more than a person. They have people.”

SB 5122 has passed through the Senate and is currently in the House but now looks much different. The bill still pushes the age range that children can be considered as having committed a crime from 8 years old to 13 years old, but with the exception of first- or second-degree murder. The bill no longer includes an extension of the juvenile court for 18- and 19-year-olds. Largely due to cost concerns, what representatives agreed on is creating what the bill describes as a “Raise the Age Juvenile Justice Task Force that must consider and provide recommendations regarding expansion of juvenile jurisdiction to encompass persons ages 18 and 19.” This Task Force is charged with creating a plan for expanding the juvenile jurisdiction to encompass emerging adults 18 and 19 years old by Dec. 1, 2022. 

Early this month, the House Appropriations Committee held a public meeting where Brown returned to argue that the bill, “sets up 12-year-olds to be untouchable by the law.” Patricia Buyers, Mayor of Yakima, returned with a similar sentiment, claiming once again that this bill would create an environment for youth to be used or extorted by gangs, deviant adults, or adolescents. While these fears have some ground, they overlook the fact that over-policing and criminalizing communities do not make them safer. According to the HIR, “Evidence shows that involvement in the criminal legal system at a young age may increase recidivism and involvement later in life.” In addition, the Washington State Center for Court Research found that recidivism rates varied by age, and “analysis of age at first disposition showed, generally, that the younger a person was at their first disposition, the more likely they were to recidivate.”

All of the evidence indicates that access to resources is what makes communities safer. “Access to quality education, making sure that people are housed and eating well, making sure there’s access to healthy food, making sure there’s access to jobs, living wages, these are all things that make communities safe,” Goode explained. “And we see that demonstrated in this mystical place that lives in every region of our state called the suburbs.”

Updating the jurisdiction of the juvenile court would do just that: create access to resources that would have otherwise been prevented. According to the HIR, updating the jurisdiction of the juvenile court would “improve access to employment opportunities, housing, and economic stability for emerging adults aged 18 and 19 years.” The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights 2019 Report “Collateral Consequences: The Crossroads of Punishment, Redemption, and the Effects on Communities,” also found that the potential loss of these basic resources, “do not serve public safety, bear no rational relationship to the offense committed, and impede people convicted of crimes from safely reentering and becoming contributing members of society.” 

Public safety and the safety of our most vulnerable children can be created by making sure resources are present in our most policed communities. These are the communities that have the greatest historical inequities. According to the HIR, “evidence suggests that changing the maximum age of juvenile jurisdiction could change law enforcement behavior.” In other areas where the juvenile jurisdiction was raised, the arrest rates of those now considered juveniles dropped significantly immediately after. This is incredibly important, considering that “officers overestimated the age of adolescent Black felony suspects by five years, they underestimated the age of adolescent white felony suspects by one year. Moreover, the older an officer thought a child was, the more culpable the officer perceived the child to be of the suspected crime,” according to the HIR.

“Simply put, our implicit bias, our archaic system of criminalizing behavior, and our perpetual desire to police Black and Brown children in an effort to keep them safe are nothing but dog whistles to the racist history that we must begin to move beyond,” Goode said plainly during the public hearing. “Candidly there are evidence-based models that prove that we can do more and we can do better by simply elevating young people as possibilities to be developed and not problems to be solved.” 

Luna Reyna is a South King County-based journalist. She is deeply invested in shifting power structures and centering the work and voices of marginalized communities. Whether she is investigating the impact of environmental racism or immigration as a movement journalist, interviewing an artist whose work sheds light on the casualties of war as an arts journalist, or covering restorative justice efforts as a self-described “Cannabis Chronic-ler,” her work is in service of liberation and advancing justice.

📸 Featured image: Photo of prison hallway by Matthew Ansley via Unsplash.

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