Advocates in Washington state are cheering the recent passage of a newly signed bill that aims to bolster the state’s efforts to divert youth from the juvenile justice system by broadening the types of cases eligible for diversion and strengthening the network of community-based service providers.
A major aim of Senate Bill 6550 is to ensure Washington’s kids can receive supportive services closer to home, which has been shown to decrease recidivism in juvenile offenders. It also provides for record destruction and sealing of records upon the completion of diversion agreements.
“This is a victory for Washington’s youth who will now have more opportunities and second chances to learn, grow and thrive without the harms and stigma of court involvement,” said Anne Lee, the executive director of TeamChild, one of the organizations leading advocacy efforts in support of this bill.
The bill revises Washington’s Juvenile Justice Act of 1977, which offered very narrow parameters for which offenses could be kept out of the court. SB 6550 eliminates many of those restrictions, and the language of the law explicitly encourages prosecutors to direct offending youth to supportive services rather than adjudicating whenever possible.
“Nothing in this chapter should be read to limit partnership with community-based programs to create diversion opportunities for juveniles,” the bill reads.
The new law also adds “community-based restorative justice programs,” which focus on the rehabilitation of offenders, to the list of acceptable diversion services. Previously, options were limited to mediation and victim offender reconciliation programs.
In 2012, Washington made restorative justice an adjudication option for youth offenders, but now they will be able to receive these services without adding to a criminal record.
“This bill swings the door wide open to further engage young people and their families with the resources they need without reliance on institutionalization as a tool to stop criminal behavior,” said Sen. Jeannie Darneille (D), a lead sponsor of the bill, in an email to The Chronicle of Social Change. “In giving courts the latitude to consider the full context of each case, we fundamentally shift the way we view each child, looking through a lens of hope and potential to craft better interventions and outcomes.”
While many felony violations will now be eligible for diversion, prosecutors will still be required to file in court for cases of violent, serious violent and sex offenses.
Another bill aimed at reducing the number of kids Washington locks up has also been moving through the state legislature, though it failed to get a vote in the recently closed legislative session. SB 5596, also sponsored by Sen. Darneille, would end the use of detention for truancy and status offenses.
SB 6550 will take effect June 7.