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Critics fear juvenile court policy suggestions allow biases to sneak in

EVERETT — An internal city memo suggesting policy changes in the juvenile justice system alarms observers who say these could be misapplied to disproportionately lock up children of color.
The memo calls on law enforcement, judges in the juvenile justice system and prosecutors to work closer together to help determine the best outcomes for youth criminals.
The objections center on a prior iteration of a memo suggestion to train police officers to be sure to document known gang affiliations and violence risk assessments in arrest reports so juvenile court judges can help determine whether a youth should be detained or given pre-trial release conditions.
The three-page memo from Dec. 27 has sparked conversations and an op-ed in the Herald criticizing it.
Mayor Cassie Franklin on Feb. 13 wrote a review and response of the Dec. 27 memo to the Police Department which the city provided the Tribune on Feb. 14.
Riall Johnson, who co-wrote the Feb. 3 op-ed with two attorneys with the nonprofit Snohomish County Public Defender Association, is among those speaking out against the memo.
In an interview, he said he is concerned the suggestions could become distorted into fostering “implied, presumptive biases” in the juvenile justice system — in other words, using race to presume who the ‘bad
kids’ and who the ‘gang members’ might be.
He said that can lead to racial disparities in sentencing, which he said terrifies him.
He challenges that these proposals ask judges to be subjective instead of objective.
One Dec. 27 suggestion the city is not pursuing recommends county judges to give weight to an arresting police officer’s judgement regarding detention and bail eligilbilty in addition to the probation staff and the prosecuting attorney. It suggests hearing the officer based “on the officer’s understanding of the circumstances surrounding the arrest” because it is “often a better indicator of immediate risk to public safety,” as written in the Dec. 27 memo.
This suggestion is not being pursued at this time, city spokeswoman Meghan Pembroke said.
Franklin’s Feb. 13 response memo has five recommendations and the mayor’s list does not say to pursue this suggestion.
The op-ed Johnson and the public defenders wrote advocates using pre-trial diversion programs instead of detention sentencing. Juvenile court diversion programs exist in the county for offenders.
The Police Department has diversion programs to steer at-risk schoolkids away from gangs: It introduced a pilot program last fall and plans to start a second, similar mentorship program this spring.
In Franklin’s Feb. 13 review, it tells the Police Department to “train officers to include, where appropriate, objective facts and circumstances in police reports that document gang affiliations or situations in which an officer believes that an involved party represents an extreme risk to community safety,” Franklin wrote.
That’s already started. The Police Department began training officers to write more details in arrest reports earlier this month, Pembroke said last week.
Franklin directs three city departments to cohesively pursue five policy suggestions in the Feb. 13 memo.
One memo suggestion is to more closely acquaint the juvenile justice system with the city’s diversion programs. Another is to improve communications between the juvenile judicial system and law enforcement. A third calls for tracking youth firearm-related incidents, which the Police Department has already begun categorizing.
Franklin’s memo also eases off a July 1 deadline proposed in the December memo to set an action plan forward. The mayor wrote she wants to instead monitor progress.
Conversations about the objections have occurred.
The city hopes to have more formal conversations, Pembroke, the city spokeswoman, said. She said Chief Templeman, Mayor Franklin, and several other city members “have had informal conversations with several of the individuals who have responded publicly to the memo.”
Johnson said he’s had conversations with three city councilmembers and Mayor Cassie Franklin on the concerns.
The city is scheduled to provide an update on its youth and gang violence initiative as part of the Wednesday, March 13 City Council public safety subcommittee meeting. The meeting will begin at 5 p.m. at 3002 Wetmore Ave. There is no public comment period.
In a lengthy email Franklin wrote on Feb. 13 to the City Council, which the city provided to the Tribune, there is one paragraph speaking to community concerns.
“I appreciate the community discussion that’s taken place in recent weeks regarding the memo,” Franklin wrote. “Complex challenges can only be solved together with our community and many important partners, which is why the team has focused their efforts on those partnerships thus far in their work.”
The body of Franklin’s email largely gives updates to the progress on the city’s multi-pronged youth and gang violence reduction efforts.
Work in this area accelerated in January 2018 when Franklin set a directive to the Police Department and staff to “evaluate detention policies and sentencing practices for juveniles arrested and/or convicted of gang-related crimes.”
The Dec. 27 suggestions in the memo in response aim to find “the most effective practices that strike a balance between rehabilitating juvenile offenders and community safety,” it says.
It notes that the Police Department has encountered certain juvenile offenders who re-offend after getting out on bail or from serving short sentences in the criminal justice system.
Documenting gang affiliations in police reports has a tie-in to how a juvenile is sentenced.
Gang affiliations can invoke a new 90-day sentence enhancement approved by the Legislature last year for serious juvenile offenders.
The nonprofit Columbia Legal Services wanted the governor to strip out the gang enhancement and a related 12-month firearm enhancement last year because “(these) have the potential to increase juvenile sentence lengths and racial disproportionality,” the group says on its website. A primary purpose behind the bill is that 16 and 17-year-olds who would automatically transfer to adult court now are more likely to stay in juvenile court, the organization notes.
“The person who wrote this memo has no idea how the criminal justice system works,” Johnson said, telling a reporter to quote that.
A city attorney leading the juvenile justice initiative met with numerous law enforcement, detention officials, prosecutors, judges and public defenders, Pembroke said.
The push and pull on releasing youth offenders came as a waning reaction to the 1990s when tough-on-crime bills led to more arrests.
The Denney Juvenile Justice Center was built in 2001 at the height of this era, and today sits more than half empty.
The trend changed to rehabilitate and assist juvenile offenders instead of locking them up.
The Police Department’s diversion efforts to prevent crime and intervene against teens being enticed into gangs are now active.
The programs are called PIVOT and PAY: Positive Intervention Outreach Team (PIVOT) and Pathways for Adolescent Youth (PAY).
The PAY program nudges at-risk kids into extracurricular activities and gives them mentorship. It’s currently being piloted at Explorer Middle School, a school located off of Holly Drive in south Everett. The PIVOT program is expected to launch this spring, according to the Police Department.
Johnson is interested in restorative justice for juveniles, and volunteers with a King County group in this arena. He also was the campaign manager for last fall’s Initiative 940 that requires police officers receive de-escalation training and mandates external reviews in deadly force cases.
Johnson’s worst fear is, if enacted, the proposals could draw efforts back to the ‘90s, when federal tough-on-crime bills were introduced in 1992 and 1994 under President Bill Clinton.
Johnson said he saw local anti-crime efforts in the 1990s used to harass minorities while he attended Voyager Middle School and Mariner High School. Voyager’s policy to break up any group of three kids was applied moreso to minorities than other groups, Johnson said.
The 1990s tough-on-crime laws have been attributed by commentators to creating distrust against law enforcement within minority communities, and attributed by experts in the justice field to uneven criminal sentencing that tended to penalize people of color
more harshly.

 

  

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