Juvenile justice reform based on simple truth: ‘You can’t punish the bad out of kids’

In the mid 1990s, Thurston County’s juvenile detention facility had room for 40 kids, but often held as many as 60. It was the era of public panic about super predators, gangs, and rampant, drug-fueled crime.

In 1998, the county opened a new facility with room for 80 kids. But because they worried whether that was big enough, they had a backup plan to knock out a wall and expand to 120 beds.

Today, on any given day, that facility houses about 10 or 11 kids. That’s because, as Juvenile Court Administrator Mike Fenton says, “We figured out that you can’t punish the bad out of kids” by locking them up.

Over the past decade or so, our county and our state have been in the forefront of a national movement to rethink what “juvenile justice” is. This movement is based on recent research on brain development, and how it is impaired by childhood traumatic experiences such as domestic violence, abuse, neglect, and poverty. It’s also based on evidence about what kinds of programs and services really help kids overcome adversity and develop the skills they need to lead meaningful, satisfying, and law-abiding lives.

Getting locked up is itself a deeply traumatic experience. Incarceration is about as far as you can get from what might convince adolescents that they are worthy of love and destined for success.

Yet, as Fenton notes, for far too many years, the system equated accountability with punishment, regardless of the circumstances of kids’ lives. When students skipped school, they could be locked up. Then, when they were released, if they skipped school again, they could be locked up longer. And if that didn’t work, it was the kids’ fault, not the system’s.

Now we know that the human brain is not fully developed until about age 25, and that the parts of the brain that develop last are those that govern good judgment and the ability to think clearly about cause and effect and consistently make sensible choices. We also know that early experiences of trauma can impede the progress of normal brain development.

The new programs and therapies that have been developed from this understanding are varied, because kids are varied. In fact, Fenton says, “the complexity of kids’ needs is enormous,” and requires careful screening to get “the right kid in the right program.”

These programs and therapies are provided by a host of community partners, not by the county: nonprofits such as Community Youth Services and Together; the state Department of Children, Youth and Families; and various mental health and substance abuse treatment providers.

Collaboration with this network of partners has required a radical change in the previously more isolated culture of the juvenile justice system. Fenton stresses the importance of sharing credit for success with the good work of these partners. “They do a fabulous job,” he says.

Making this sea change was not easy. Some parts of the system were more wary of it than others – particularly law enforcement, detention staff and prosecutors. But change has been pushed along by research from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, strong local nonprofits, recent legislative mandates, and Fenton’s remarkable leadership.

Their success leads us to wonder: Should the adult system adopt the philosophy and practices that have so dramatically reduced juvenile incarceration rates? Fenton’s answer is quick: “They not only should and can, I wonder what’s taking so long.”

“The big lesson,” he says, “is you can’t punish bad behavior out of people.”

Angelus redevelopment means more housing options disappear

It’s just sad.

The Angelus, Olympia’s last low-rent, private-sector downtown housing, consists of 29 funky units upstairs at Fourth and Columbia. Its new owner wants to clean the place up and evict some of its more troublesome tenants. Rent increases will follow. At the Angelus, a room with a bathroom down the hall currently goes for $495 a month.

The slightly good news is that the building owner and the city are stepping up to help those evicted tenants find new housing. But the bad news – the far, far worse news – is that no one is planning to build more of this dorm-style housing with a bathroom down the hall. In today’s rental market, that’s the only kind of housing that could possibly rent for prices many people at the bottom of the economic pile can afford.

There used to be more of this style of housing, especially in larger cities, but it has slender profit margins and has faced many regulatory barriers.

Until a way is found to provide incentives for private developers to build more of it – or, if you prefer, until the federal government raises our taxes and increases government funding for housing tenfold – we will continue to have homeless neighbors.