By Erica C. Barnett
The director of King County’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DADJ), Allen Nance, has asked the state supreme court to rescind a rule barring local courts from issuing warrants against and jailing young people who violate court orders or fail to appear in court, unless the child poses a “serious threat to public safety.”
The court issued the rule in 2020 to reduce crowding in youth jails and made it permanent in 2021, sparking immediate pushback from judges and juvenile court administrators, who argued that judges need discretion to jail young people for their own good and so that they won’t commit more crimes in their communities.
In a letter to the court in April, Nance argued that judges are “uniquely situated to make informed decisions regarding the need for temporary custody of a youth following the issuance of a bench warrant and once a youth is brought before the court to have the warrant served or quashed, because they “often know the youth, their family, and social histories or have the expertise to obtain the information they need to help determine the presence of urgent and immediate necessity for a custodial response.”
For example, Nance continued, a young person may need to be held in jail because their parents “do not know where their son or daughter has been living or what challenges they face outside the home”—challenges that could include “the deadly effects of substances [such as fentanyl] that are readily accessible to youth and permeate our communities.” Although “most youth do not require custodial supervision and incarceration,” Nance wrote, “for a subset of the youth who come before juvenile court judges, a decision to issue a bench warrant or order custody may mean the difference between life and death.”
A spokesman for the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention said the department “does not track data specific to how young people who are released in their communities while awaiting resolution of their court issues may end up harming themselves or their community.”
However, the spokesman continued, the views Nance expressed in his letter “are about doing what is in the best interest of young people and what also promotes community safety. Proper judicial oversight is required to ensure that both the best interest of young people as well as the community are taken into consideration.” The letter, he added, is limited to the court rule restricting warrants for failure to appear and violating court orders. “We continue to advance our commitment to find alternatives to incarceration whenever possible, in the least restrictive environment that achieves the safety goals for youth and the community,” the spokesman said.
Anita Khandelwal, who directs the county’s Department of Public Defense, says if the court gets rid of the rule restricting warrants for youth who don’t pose an imminent threat, the most likely outcome is a return to pre-COVID policy, in which judges issued warrants “without examining whether the youth posed a serious threat to public safety,” including situations where “a youth didn’t come to court or wasn’t at home when they were supposed to be.”
The result, she says, will be a spike in warrants and youth incarceration, especially for young people of color; in 2019, before the court issued the rule, between 82 and 84 percent of warrants issued by King County Juvenile Court judges in 2019 were for youth of color, according to Khandelwal.
In a letter asking state Supreme Court Chief Justice Steven González to maintain the rule, dozens of advocates and defense attorneys argued that incarcerating young people harms their physical and mental health, disrupts their education, and worsens the racial disproportionality of the entire criminal legal system. “Because the juvenile legal system is entangled with many other institutions that have perpetuated racist practices like policing, housing, education, and employment discrimination, limiting the circumstances under which a youth can be incarcerated due to a warrant in a juvenile offense proceeding protects our youth and enables a more racially just future,” the letter says.
King County, under County Executive Dow Constantine, has vowed to shut down the youth jail by 2025, although that pledge has been coupled with an increase in youth incarceration and worsening conditions at the facility. So far this year, an average of 34 kids are incarcerated at the Clark Children and Family Justice Center in Seattle every day, an increase of almost 20 percent over .
In a letter to Khandelwal, Constantine’s labor relations director, Megan Pedersen, said the county executive “has always empowered county leaders to weigh in on policy matters based on their operational vantage point and subject matter expertise. … This issue highlights the complexity we navigate with criminal justice issues within the Executive Branch given competing policy objectives.”
Khandelwal has asked to add Nance’s letter to the agenda for the next meeting of the county’s Care and Closure Advisory Committee, which makes recommendations on a path to closing down the youth jail; that meeting will be on Monday, June 24 at 4pm.