Parents Won’t Have to to Pay Jail Costs for Incarcerated Children; Another Suicide at Downtown Jail Amid Ongoing Staff Shortage

1. Governor Jay Inslee signed legislation on Thursday ending the requirement that parents of children in state-run juvenile detention centers pay for a portion of the cost of their child’s incarceration, a practice known as “parent pay.” The new law will also clear the debts of the roughly 240 families who collectively owed $1.1 million in unpaid custody fees to the state’s Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), which runs Washington’s three juvenile detention facilities. 

DCYF’s 2020-2021 budget assumed that the agency would take in $1.9 million in parent pay revenue over the past two years; Rachel Sottile, the president of the Center for Children and Youth Justice, a children’s rights organization in Seattle, told PubliCola that the agency was able to collect less than a quarter of that figure.

“First of all, DCYF can’t do if its job if it doesn’t have the resources it needs,” she said, “and secondly, parent pay created financial instability for parents that left a lot of youth cycling back into the criminal justice system.” She added that parents who did not pay their debts to DCYF risked facing contempt charges and possible jail time.

In a press release, DCYF Secretary Ross Hunter said he supported eliminating parent pay, calling the practice financially impractical and counterproductive. “It probably costs more to collect [fees from parents] than we bring in and may make it less likely for youth to reunify with their families, destabilizing their transition back to the community,” he said.

Along similar lines, the legislature voted this month to allow judges to waive most of the fines and restitution fees imposed on people convicted of crimes; that bill applies retroactively, opening the door for thousands of people who are currently in prison or who previously spent time in prison to petition courts to relieve them of debts that can present a hurdle to successful re-entry.

2. A 25-year-old man died at Harborview Medical Center after hanging himself in a cell at the King County Correctional Facility in downtown Seattle last week, marking the third death at the jail since the beginning of the year: an unusually high number for this point in the year, especially given the decline in the jail’s population during the pandemic. The deaths come as the county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention continues to lose more corrections officers than it can hire, leaving some officers and other jail staff stretched thin.

Jail staff transferred the man to Harborview Medical Center after a guard found him unresponsive in a cell on March 10; he died from his injuries four days later. Court records indicate he was a trans man; the King County Superior Court referred to him using the last name Kostelak, and according to a source, he may have used the name Damian.

Last month, 47-year-old Keith Denegal also died by suicide in the same facility, and in January, 34-year-old Erick Hernandez-Mendoza died of a drug overdose involving meth. By comparison, only two people died in the jail in all of 2021. The highest number of in-custody deaths in the past decade was in 2017, when 6 people died—though the county had nearly 25 percent more people in custody at the time. The deaths this year, combined with a smaller jail population, pushes King County’s rate of in-custody deaths to nearly 30 percent above the national rate.

“I can’t link these deaths to our staffing shortage directly,” said Dennis Folk, the president of the King County Corrections Guild, “but what I can say is that it seems like the people coming through our doors are sicker than they have been—in terms of withdrawal, mental health and everything else—in the recent past, and it’s hard to meet that need.”

The jails currently have nearly 100 vacant officer positions, he said, and more people have left since the beginning of the year than the county has hired. Folk added that the jail’s medical staff are similarly short-staffed.

—Paul Kiefer

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