In Our View: Modernizing Justice

Focus on local juvenile offenders shifts from punishment to rehabilitation

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Clark County is embarking on a new system of juvenile justice that avoids incarceration for low-risk offenders, and the decision is backed by solid, positive results already established elsewhere in the state.In a typical year, more than two-thirds of incarcerated (more than four hours) juvenile offenders have not committed felonies and present no danger to public safety, which poses the question: Why are they locked up? The easy answer: They don't always have to be. But system reform requires a modern approach based on sophisticated analysis of each case and careful use of alternatives such as community service, house arrest, weekend programs, electronic monitoring and alternative schooling.

Nine local agencies — mostly justice- and law-enforcement-related — signed a memorandum of understanding last summer to adopt the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, or JDAI, which is drawing praise in nine other Washington counties. And judging by the capacity crowd at a local meeting Wednesday, support is growing for the program that should be in place in four to six months.

It's unknown if JDAI will yield direct cost savings for taxpayers. Although other counties have not been closing juvenile detention facilities or reducing staffs, they have reduced overcrowding and avoided the need to expand facilities. But long-term gains include effective rehabilitation of juvenile offenders, repositioning them on education tracks and preventing them from becoming career criminals, plus success in the humanitarian pursuit of turning wayward teens into productive adults.

In the nine Washington counties that have adopted JDAI, youth incarcerations have been reduced by 58 percent in recent years, and juvenile rehabilitation commitments have dropped 54 percent, all without jeopardizing public safety. These triumphs are achieved because the approach has changed from punishment to restoration. Keeping low-risk juvenile offenders out of detention facilities keeps them away from the negative influences of felony offenders.

JDAI was launched 15 years ago by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and has been adopted by 24 states, including Washington in 2004. It follows eight core strategies: collaboration of local agencies; statistically driven policies and case-level work; objective detention decisions; a broad variety of non-secure detention alternatives; more efficient case processing; improved confinement conditions; reduced special populations such as probation violators; and racial and ethnic fairness in policy and case-level decisions.

When JDAI began in Seattle, skeptics called it "a big jail break," but the clearly quantified benefits have quelled the critics.

It's good to see Clark County prosecutors and justice and law-enforcement officials collaborating on a modern approach to dealing with low-risk teens such as truants and runaways, plus those needing mental health or substance abuse services.

With careful monitoring and the flexibility to adjust along the way, JDAI could make a big difference in Clark County.