Vazaskia Crockrell, director of the Office of Juvenile Justice, talks about racial disparities in the state’s juvenile justice system March 30 in Tacoma. (Department of Social and Health Services photo)

Rethinking juvenile justice

State kicks off effort to address increasing racial disparities

While juvenile arrests in Washington state have decreased in recent years, racial disparity in the system has increased.

According to the Office of Juvenile Justice, youth of color are far more likely to be arrested, prosecuted and found guilty of a crime and sent to a state facility than white youth. Despite the fact that black youth make up 6 percent of the population, they now account for 44 percent of cases in juvenile court.

It’s a trend that state leaders say is unacceptable and requires action. They gathered to discuss the issue at the Smart on Juvenile Justice Reform project launch at the University of Washington Tacoma on March 30.

The launch brought together national experts, local elected officials, representatives from local law enforcement, educators and community leaders poised to take on reforms to reduce the number of youth, particularly youth of color, who enter the justice system for minor offenses.

Additionally, the event featured a panel of youth from Green Hill Academic School, the state’s maximum security juvenile facility in Chehalis. They shared their struggles with substance abuse and gang affiliation that eventually lead to their incarceration.

Elected officials, community leaders and juvenile justice experts gather March 30 in Tacoma during the launch of the Smart on Juvenile Justice Reform project. (Department of Social and Health Services photo)

“We all have a stake in reforming the juvenile justice system,” said Vazaskia Crockrell, director of the Office of Juvenile Justice.

Washington was one of only three states recently awarded a Smart Grant from the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The state Department of Social and Health Services and its partners will use the two-year $200,000 planning grant to develop a strategic plan. Leaders hope they can then pursue an additional $800,000 grant to implement the plan.

“It’s a call to action,” said DSHS Rehabilitation Administration Assistant Secretary Marybeth Queral. “We need to do a better job serving the youth in our community. We want to make our vision a reality.”

The event also featured remarks from state Sen. Jeannie Darneille, Pierce County Superior Court Judge James Orlando, retired Rehabilitation Administration Assistant Secretary John Clayton and Eileen Garry, acting administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency.