Juvenile Justice Reform Sets Us On a Path to End Youth Homelessness

The Washington Capitol building in Olympia.

The Washington Capitol building in Olympia. Shutterstock/Lisa von Biela

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COMMENTARY | In Washington state, thousands of young people are locked up annually for “status offenses” and find themselves homeless when leaving detention. A new law seeks to change that.

Imagine that you’re 15 years old. You’re in between your 19th and 20th foster home and you choose instead to stay with friends, away from the system that has failed you. Or imagine you are skipping school, hiding from bullying or hiding a secret about an unstable life at home. When the system finally tracks you down, you are locked up in juvenile detention for days. This was a reality for thousands of young people in Washington state each year—until now.

After decades of advocacy, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee recently signed SB 5290, a law that will end the practice of incarcerating teenagers and young adults for so-called “status offenses.” A status offense is, essentially, a crime of youth, like running away or skipping school. These offenses wouldn’t be considered criminal behavior if the individual was an adult, and they often result in jail time for predictable adolescent behavior. But at their worst, status offenses criminalize young people for their responses to trauma.

Washington has held the dubious distinction as largest jailer of status offenders in the country for far, far too long. In 2013, Washington incarcerated an unconscionable 30 percent of the nation’s status offenders. With this new law we should see those numbers come down to zero, hopefully rapidly. 

The change marks a major step toward more just and humane treatment of our state’s young people, but it will also have major downstream effects on our ongoing fight against homelessness.

Nearly 13,000 young people find themselves on their own without a home in Washington state every year. Nearly half of youth experiencing homelessness have been in juvenile detention, jail or prison. Let that sink in for a second. Thousands of young people leave a system that’s meant to administer justice and help them get their lives back on track, and instead detention often destabilizes their lives, leading thousands to eventually become homeless. This is a huge missed opportunity to do right by our young people. 

Washington’s juvenile justice issues until now have been two-fold: Our state incarcerates far too many young people for crimes of youth, often driven by family instability or other underlying trauma, and when those young people leave lock up, they leave without the support and skills they need to find stable housing. From there you can draw a straight line to the thousands of teenagers and young adults experiencing homelessness in our state, and quite frankly, to the crisis of adult homelessness. Nearly half of all people experiencing homelessness first experienced homelessness as young people. Disrupting the jail-to-streets pipeline is a critical point of leverage in our work to end not only youth homelessness, but also adult and family homelessness.

The new law eliminating jail time for status offenses, coupled with a law passed in 2018 which requires the state to ensure young people leaving the juvenile justice, child welfare and behavioral health systems have stable housing and access to supportive services, sets our state on a path to end the pipeline between the justice system and youth homelessness.

But we can’t stop here. We urgently need solutions that support the young people we’re diverting from detention. Judges in the state have long resisted prohibitions on their ability to place youth in detention, arguing that they could be in more dangerous situations if they’re not forced into detention facilities. It’s an understandable viewpoint, and one that Washington needs to find an answer to immediately. The legislature provided more resources for family reconciliation services and for voluntary spaces for youth, but nothing on the scale that is needed to support the thousands of young people the state will be diverting from the juvenile justice system.

Still, passage of Senate Bill 5290 is cause for celebration and lawmakers across the country should take notice of Washington’s reversal on status offenses. The same laws that contributed to our out of control youth incarceration are unfortunately still on the books in many states. Given our state’s history, if we can make this correction, I’m confident every state can.

Washington’s path to eliminating detention for status offenses also offers a roadmap for other advocates to follow. The measure passed in large part due to advocacy and expertise of young people determined to ensure the system that failed them would not fail the next young person. Working with the Mockingbird Society, youth advocates testified before the state legislature and shared how their experiences with the justice system had compounded the trauma they experienced living in unstable homes.

Their stories were a wake-up call for Washington’s legislators, and should sound the alarm for elected officials across the country. Our state has a long way to go, but Washington offers a roadmap for others to follow. Our state has committed to ending the juvenile justice to homelessness pipeline by 2021, and with the passage of SB 5290, we are well on our way.    

Tricia Raikes is the cofounder of the Raikes Foundation with her husband, Jeff Raikes. Tricia has been recognized as a White House Champion of Change for her work on youth homelessness.

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