Clark County has launched an initiative aiming to move low-risk youth out of secure detention and back into the community through alternative programs.
The leaders of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative spoke to a full house Wednesday afternoon at the Public Service Center. They talked about how it aligns with the county's already-progressive stance on juvenile incarceration.
"Sometimes that sort of concept can make law enforcement nervous, but not in this community," said Prosecutor Tony Golik.
This nationwide initiative spans 200 jurisdictions in 40 different states; it's the largest of its kind. Clark County adopted the initiative last year and has since been collecting data and laying program groundwork.
About 70 percent of Clark County's incarcerated youths did not commit felonies and presented no danger to public safety, according to a 2012 survey of local juvenile records.
Rand Young, a former Spokane County Court administrator, said that two decades ago, detention centers were overcrowded and overrepresented youth of color. Even though the youth crime rate was falling, the incarceration rate was rising. When the initiative was introduced in King County, it was considered "a big jail break" by opponents, he said.
The initiative, however, has proved wildly successful around the state.
Since the state adopted the program, youth incarceration populations dropped 58 percent, juvenile rehabilitation commitments decreased 54 percent and felony petitions saw a 57 percent decrease -- all without compromising public safety.
Alternatives to secure detention include community service, house arrest, weekend programs, electronic monitoring and alternative schooling.
"It makes a lot of sense when you think about it," Young said.
The hope is to influence lower-risk youths before they potentially wind up in prison as adults.
Putting these kids in detention with felons is detrimental, Young said, because it starts a downward spiral toward more criminal behavior. When youths who have committed misdemeanors or missed a court date are in detention, they're away from school, which can be a stabilizing environment.
Camas School District Superintendent Mike Nerland said he's worked with students who could have benefitted from the initiative and having a mentor.
"I know their futures would have been different," he said.
Those arrested while in high school are twice as likely to drop out and four times as likely to quit school once they visit court, he said.
The initiative changes the conversation and changes the focus of the juvenile justice system from punishment to restoration by giving offenders self-worth and showing them they can have a positive impact in the community.
A data-driven assessment would determine which offenders would qualify for alternative programs and which would pose a potential danger or flight risk; those high-risk youths remain in secure detention.
The alternatives program should be up and running in four to six months, said Jodi Martin, juvenile court program coordinator for the county.