Juvenile justice reform taking shape in Washington

News release from Gov. Jay Inslee

Washington took significant steps this year to reform the criminal justice system for children and teens convicted of crimes. Those changes take effect today and are due, in part, to the participation of incarcerated youth themselves.

One of the bills signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee revises rules that require automatically trying a minor as an adult, giving prosecutors more discretion for trying certain crimes. Other bills improve access to diversion programs, allow for the destruction of juvenile court records and change the age limit for staying in juvenile institutions. To create the new policies, state lawmakers and law enforcement leaders turned to recent research about adolescent brain development and incarcerated youth — and they listened to the voices of Washington teens serving time in juvenile institutions for serious crimes.

Several incarcerated youth wrote letters to lawmakers asking them to approve Senate Bill 6160. The bill allows minors convicted in adult court to stay in the state juvenile corrections system — Juvenile Rehabilitation — until they turn 25, rather than being transferred to a prison when they turn 21. The measure aligns with research showing that youth transferred to adult prisons are more likely to reoffend after their release than those who remain in the juvenile system.

The bill also gives more discretion to prosecutors and judges to decide when a minor must be tried as an adult for certain serious offenses or if they should stay in juvenile court.

Aaron Toleafoa was one of many incarcerated youth who wrote legislators this year. He is serving a 21-year sentence for attempted murder and carjacking committed when he was 15. Toleafoa said that when incarcerated youth age out of the juvenile justice system after working through years of rehabilitation, they aren’t able to share the lessons they’ve learned with incoming youth. The new law would help provide those opportunities.

“To our young ones who are growing (up) on the same streets we were in, to our brothers and sisters that are out there doing what they only know how to do — what they were raised around, what they were born into: I would be honored to have the chance to role model change for them,” he wrote. “Being able to stay under the jurisdiction of (the Department of Social and Health Services in Juvenile Rehabilitation) until the age of 25 will be beneficial for not only myself, but the future of our communities.”

Diontae Moore-Lyons also wrote lawmakers. He is serving time at Green Hill School in Chehalis for a first-degree assault committed when he was 16. Given the severity of the charges, he was automatically sent to adult court.

“Staying in the juvenile system means they can possibly get their records sealed,” Moore-Lyons said about minors charged with future crimes. “I know it’s too late for me, but it doesn’t mean it could be too late for the people coming up. … There’s a lot of people in my position that … can’t have their records sealed.”

He praised Green Hill for offering a number of life-changing programs.

“I’ve been in plenty of programs such as mentoring, aggression replacement therapy, African-American culture class, youth council, and college class. I have completed intensive outpatient drug and alcohol treatment and the Uplift employment-training program,” he wrote. “GHS is basically prison but with way more resources and more rehabilitation.”

Inslee signed SB 6160 in March; it takes effect today.

The new legislation aligns with the governor’s executive order on building safe and strong communities through successful reentry after prison, as well as his priorities of reducing recidivism and promoting equality in the justice system.

Proponents acknowledge that the new law means juvenile detention facilities may need to increase capacity. They’ve also considered the effects of incarcerating a wider age range: The legislation directs juvenile institutions to take measures to protect younger incarcerated youth from their older peers. Additionally, the law requires the Washington Institute for Public Policy to assess the success of the changes and issue a preliminary report to the governor and Legislature in 2023.

During the bill’s signing ceremony, Inslee thanked the incarcerated youth for lending their voices to the process.

“This is a very important bill because we think it will help young people avoid recidivism, help our communities by reducing crime and recognize the ambitions of youth who we understand have positive futures,” Inslee said. “This bill makes a number of changes to the juvenile justice system to line up with evolving brain science and provide more discretion in sentencing youth.”

More opportunities for diversion

Another win this year for juvenile justice reform, Senate Bill 6550, expands the circumstances in which a prosecutor may divert rather than prosecute a case in juvenile court. It also expands the programs allowed as part of a juvenile diversion, which could include community service, mental health or chemical dependency counseling, or no-contact agreements with crime victims.

Under the new law, prosecutors must divert any juvenile misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors that are unrelated to a felony, and prosecutors will have much more discretion about whether to divert in juvenile felony cases.

The law also requires officials to destroy, within 90 days, the juvenile court records of people who are 18 or older if they have successfully completed their required diversion, counsel agreements and release agreements, and owe no restitution. Advocates of the bill say that having a criminal record is a significant barrier to young adults trying to get their lives on track, getting in the way of finding a job or housing.

Annie Lee, executive director of legal aid organization TeamChild, testified in strong support of the bill. Attorneys from the organization represent about 1,000 teens a year in Washington.

“Prosecutors have very limited discretion to divert cases, and this bill allows for more flexibility to consider whole circumstances,” Lee said during her testimony. “The bill emphasizes what we know from research, experience and common sense, and that is that teenagers make mistakes.”

Lee continued: “This diversion bill recognizes that young people have great potential for development and learning and gives local jurisdictions and courts a chance to provide more options for connecting youth to support and interventions that can put them on a positive path.”

Resources, access to programs

The supplemental budget passed this year also includes money to study how to improve services for youth and families in conflict. The new Department of Children, Youth, and Families and the Office of Youth Homelessness will do that work.

Senate Bill 6115 clarifies that DSHS may contract with a tribe to provide residential custody services in Juvenile Rehabilitation facilities for youth sentenced by a tribal court. The new law will ensure that tribal youth in the juvenile justice system get access to the most effective programs to prevent recidivism.