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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Amid Push For Alternatives, Judges Cling to Juvenile Detention For Truants

Nationally, there’s a push to outlaw incarceration of students for skipping school and other non-criminal behavior and use alternatives.

But some judges are reluctant to give detention up.

School districts in Washington are required to file a truancy petition with juvenile court when a student is chronically absent. Grays Harbor County Superior Court Judge David Edwards believes detention is one way to get a kid who’s not following court orders back on track.

'I think you need a tune-up'

“Often times we’re using our detention facility as a positive tool to help kids be successful in school,” he said.

Edwards also sends kids back to detention if he thinks they’re slipping.

“What I tell these kids is I think you need a tune-up,” he said. “And so I might put them in for two days or three days just so that they remember what it’s like.”

On a recent morning, a high school student stood before Judge Edwards at the Grays Harbor County truancy court.

“You have two Fs, two incompletes because of missing work,” Judge Edwards said.

The student was missing school, flunking classes and, the judge suspected, using marijuana. The teen’s extra chances had run out.

“You’re going to stay here until Friday,” Judge Edwards told him.

By here, Judge Edwards meant juvenile detention. Soon the teen was led away in handcuffs and the next youth on the truancy calendar is called up.

More harm than good?

Grays Harbor County uses detention for truants, runaways and other non-criminal juvenile offenders more than any other county in state. And Washington leads the nation in locking up status offenders, as they’re often called.

Why is this? Juvenile justice reformers point to the state’s strict truancy and runaway laws. But they say there’s no evidence detention actually helps kids re-engage in school.

“It’s scaring someone and it’s potentially re-traumatizing them,” said Naomi Smoot from the Coalition for Juvenile Justice in Washington, DC.

“But it doesn’t fix the problem that led to them not going to school or running away from home in the first place,” she said.

In fact, Smoot said juvenile detention has the potential to do more harm than good.

'There’s no punitive intent here at all'

Already 16 states prohibit the practice. In Washington state, a measure to outlaw detention specifically for truants was introduced in the legislature this year, but died. It ran into opposition from people like state Senator Jim Hargrove. He’s a Democrat and was a prime sponsor of Washington’s 20-year-old truancy and runaway law.

At a recent committee hearing, Hargrove made the case that these youth are sometimes in dangerous situations.

“Incarceration is an alternative to push those kids towards assessment, towards help and towards actually the solving the problem,” he said. “There’s no punitive intent here at all.”

But there are also alternatives to incarceration. For instance: community service, electronic home monitoring and special centers where youth go to report in-person. For nearly 20 years, Vancouver’s Clark County has deliberately diverted truants away from detention. Instead students are given a special mental health screening and intensive supervision.

Does detention actually help?

Judge Edwards recently decided not to participate in something called the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative.

“I don’t want to reduce detention just for the sake of reducing the use of our detention facility,” Edwards said.

Because he believes it’s working: truancy petitions are down 60 percent in his county since 2007.

But Judge Edwards says he is open to alternatives. He just hired a community service coordinator. And the county has an agreement with the University of Washington to explore putting in place additional evidence-based therapy programs to help youth and families.

“If we reduce our detention usage in Grays Harbor County, I want it to be because we have fewer kids who are drug dependent, who are suffering from untreated mental health disorders and who are engaging in behaviors that are dangerous to themselves and their families,” Edwards said.

Washington lawmakers are moving ahead to require school districts and courts to do more to reduce truancy. This includes requiring a risk and needs assessment and setting up community truancy boards in lieu of court.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."