The number of kids housed in Thurston County’s Juvenile Detention Facility reached an all-time low last year, with an average of fewer than 15 juveniles held there each day.
That’s a 75 percent reduction since 1998, when the county began tracking daily populations. Then, the county housed about 60 juveniles each day.
“That’s a huge historic low. We’re astounded by that number,” said Judge Christine Schaller, who presides over the county’s juvenile and family courts.
But while the decrease is unprecedented, it’s no accident.
It’s the result of planning, new programs to help juvenile offenders, and a decision that detention should be used to protect the community — not for mere punishment.
“The mindset was that if kids weren’t getting the message, you had to give them more time,” said Juvenile Court administrator Mike Fenton. “Well guess what? That didn’t work.
“The notion was that accountability equals detention. Certainly, these kids need to be held accountable, but that doesn’t need to be detention. There are other ways.”
The court now uses community service and day reporting programs, and focuses on solving the problems that lead youths to commit crimes, Fenton said.
Only the high-risk juveniles — those who actually may be a danger to themselves or the community — are detained for more than a day or two.
“Right now, it feels like the right kids are in detention,” Schaller said.
Changes to Thurston County’s juvenile detention program — and other programs statewide — began in the late 1990s, when officials began tracking trends.
At the time, a large percentage of detained youths weren’t a threat to public safety. Most were just nuisances, detained for violating court orders, Fenton said. State law allows courts to detain juveniles for as long as 30 days for each probation violation.
Some kids would serve 200 days in detention a year, he said. Many already were struggling socially and with their school work, and that time away didn’t help.
Recognizing the practice didn’t work, the state adopted programs proven to work nationally and internationally, Fenton said. The courts developed case management and risk assessment programs designed to get kids into the right programs. The programs combat substance abuse and address mental health issues, family problems and academic difficulties.
That work often involves engaging the juvenile’s family, Schaller said.
“Often, if we can’t get an entire family engaged, it’s really difficult for a youth to be successful,” Schaller said.
“We have to fix the entire system around the kids,” Fenton said. “Their family, their education and sometimes their faith community.”
The largest drop in the detention center’s population came in 2008 and 2009, when the recession led to cuts countywide. Fenton said the juvenile court program used those cuts as an excuse to “do the right thing.”
Detention is expensive, he said. Instead of spending to hold kids in the facility, court officials decided to use the money for programs that support them or address their needs.
One example is day reporting. Offenders come to the facility during the day and are part of a classroom setting, receiving educational guidance. Many of these kids had previously been kicked out of school.
The garden program, which began in 2016, is an extension of day reporting and gives kids an opportunity to be contributing members of society. Last year, juvenile offenders grew 200 pounds of food and donated it to the Thurston County Food Bank.
Other community service options include picking up litter, working with Habitat for Humanity and helping the Salvation Army.
Thurston County’s program relies heavily on community partners, including Community Youth Services and Thurston Together, to provide counseling and other programs for juvenile offenders and their families, Fenton said.
What it really comes down to is a debate between punishment and accountability, Fenton said. Before, the court wasn’t providing the resources to change kids’ behavior.
“We were telling them that what they were doing was wrong, but we weren’t telling them how to fix it,” Fenton said. “The idea is that we’re not doing that anymore.”
Which kids are still being detained?
Most kids who are booked into the detention facility are there because they’ve committed some kind of violation, Fenton said. Often, these violations take place in the home — assault, malicious mischief, etc.
The facility they’re ultimately housed in looks like a stereotypical jail. The rooms feature built-in concrete bunks and stainless steel toilets. The floors, walls and doors are etched with graffiti, likely carved by bored juvenile offenders from times past.
“It’s true, it is a hardened facility,” Fenton said. “And long-term exposure to it isn’t going to be good for the kids. So we try not to keep them in here for too long.”
Juvenile Detention Supervisor Chris Marx said he’s spent most of his career working in juvenile facilities, and he said it’s not at all like working in a jail. He said he’s able to get to know the kids and establish positive relationships.
He said the job is rewarding and he couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
“It’s nice to see them when they’re 25 and doing well,” Marx said. “Sometimes they’ll even say ‘thank you.’ ”
Schaller said these positive relationships are essential, and ideally they begin as soon as juveniles enter the facility.
When a juvenile is booked, a probation counselor is on-scene within minutes, Fenton said. They immediately begin an assessment to identify red flags, such as suicide risk or assaultive behavior. The assessment also identifies needs that aren’t being met so that staff can develop a plan.
The success of the program is due, in large part, to the hard work of the probation counselors, Schaller said. They identify needs, then support the juveniles and their families.
“They really care about the kids, which is why they do the work,” Schaller said.
At a first court appearance, a judge determines whether there’s probable cause for criminal charges. Judges also decide whether to hold the juveniles or release them. Often, kids are released soon after their arrests, Fenton said.
But they often walk away with an appointment for a counselor or other treatment provider.
“We don’t just give them someone to call — we set up the appointments,” Fenton said.
The kids who are left in detention are often high risk and high need. Many have mental health issues, and providers are more able to provide mental health services within the facility. Then, they do a “warm handoff” so the kids aren’t lost in the transition.
A smaller group of juveniles booked into the detention center aren’t accused of committing a crime, Fenton said. They’re picked up because they keep running away, they’re living on the streets, or they’ve missed a lot of school. The Legislature made this possible in 1995 with the Becca Bill.
The idea, Schaller said, is that the resources in the detention facility will help prevent them from committing crimes or putting themselves in danger.
The practice is controversial. Some people believe these kids committing civil violations shouldn’t be detained at all, Fenton said.
But in these cases, Fenton said he sees detention as an emergency room. The kids don’t have to stay long — but while they’re in the facility, their problems can be addressed and the kids can be stabilized.
Does it work?
It’s hard to define success in juvenile cases, Fenton said. Many people believe that kids who complete the kinds of programs Thurston County uses have lower recidivism rates — but even defining recidivism is difficult. Has a juvenile failed if he or she is arrested again? Or charged? Or convicted?
What if the juvenile’s first offense was robbery, but they’re later convicted of shoplifting? Is that progress?
Other measures of success, such as school and community participation, are even harder to quantify, he said.
Shaller said that the number of juvenile cases filed in Thurston County has decreased by about 50 percent in the past five years. That decrease could be due, in part, to a decrease in recidivism.
Schools are also taking a more active role and dealing with situations internally instead of calling the police. And police officers are playing a larger role in problem-solving at the scene.
But, Schaller said it’s clear to her that the juvenile offenders’ needs are being met more than before. More kids are being connected with community resources, and she hears positive feedback in court — especially about the garden program.
“They don’t always talk about which programs helped,” Schaller said. “But a lot of them talk about the garden.”