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Court-Involved Youth are “Opportunity Youth,” Too

By Nicole Yohalem, Director, Road Map Project Opportunity Youth Initiative

April 2, 2014

This legislative session, there were some key wins for a small but important and extremely vulnerable group of opportunity youth – those who come into contact with the court system. The juvenile court was established with the fundamental purpose of rehabilitation. Though a wave of extremely punitive policies and approaches took hold across the nation during the 1980s and 1990s, in Washington State and King County, we have some progress to celebrate – and much more work ahead.

The Washington State Legislature just passed a measure that limits access to juvenile records (HB 1651). This is an important step in making sure that a mistake someone makes as a kid doesn’t ruin their future. In the past, these records could only be sealed after a long and complicated legal process and then still, private companies could buy state data files including this “sealed” information.

And by passing SB 5064, the Legislature did away with a law allowing youth as young as 13 to be automatically sentenced as adults to life without parole. It also gives youth serving what are known as “functional life sentences” a chance of release after 20 years.

Well before these two recent legislative developments, there has been notable progress. For example, the number of young people in Washington’s juvenile institutions is about half of what it was 10 years ago. This is excellent news, especially considering a longitudinal study by the Research and Data Analysis Division at the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) suggests only 14% of 9th graders who have been in the state Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration (JRA) system will graduate from high school. That’s not a typo – when DSHS followed a cohort of 9th graders receiving JRA services – only 14% had graduated from high school six years later.

We can and must do better. We are talking about a small number of youth (483 total were involved with JRA in the year the above study was conducted), and quite literally a captive audience. Young people who do end up in the care of the state or the county need access to high-quality educational opportunities while they are in detention and then supported transitions back to their neighborhoods and schools upon release. While in detention, they need more opportunities like the Pongo Teen Writing Project, featured recently on PBS Newshour, to develop skills and share their voices and experiences.

Outside of the courts we need to continue important work to improve school discipline policies and practices, and we need to step up our investments along the continuum from dropout prevention to intervention and re-engagement. Important work is underway to develop Early Warning Indicator Systems across Road Map Project region school districts. This work needs to be supported and advanced and the assets of community partners need to be brought to bear, as is the case in this award-winning partnership between City Year and Aki Kurose Middle School. Young people need more positive, engaging, accessible opportunities in their neighborhoods during the non-school hours. And young people who have left the school system need clear options and supported pathways to get back on track, like those currently being developed under the state’s Open Doors dropout retrieval policy.