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Johnathan Hemphill

Over the last year there has been a movement. A movement that has swept across the state of Washington, and within its ravenous waters of change incorporated not only advocates and impacted people but entire institutions. All of whom were inspired to radically reimagine our juvenile justice system. It is by way of this movement and this radical reimagining that this year we were able to pass Senate Bill 5290 to end the practice of incarcerating juveniles for non-criminal offenses.


Prior to this in 2016, in King County with a Black population of only eight percent, 43 percent of children incarcerated for noncriminal offenses were Black. In contrast, only 34 percent of children booked into jail were white. Meaning that, if we are honest, whether it’s due to implicit or explicit bias, the Valid Court Order Exception (VCO) was at the root of institutional racism within our juvenile justice system. In addition, in 2017 out of over 800 unique cases of youth detained, 48 percent were girls and 25 percent were children between the ages of 11-14 years old (Khandelwal, 20191 ). With that said, many proponents believed that this practice was good as a punitive measure to hold youth accountable.

However, the work of many advocates and researchers demonstrated the direct correlation between the deprivation of resources and neglect rooted in poverty to truancy, entrance into state care, and adverse childhood experiences, which lead to risky behavior among youth. Knowing that poverty is at the root of most noncriminal offenses it made no sense to take punitive measures against the most vulnerable. Finally, Washington state was an outliner in this practice, having the highest rate of using the VCO to incarcerate youth for this reason. The passage of this bill sends a message to our youth; it lets them know that we care about their futures. It sends a message to the nation that Washington state refuses to be an outlier in the world of juvenile justice.

This could not have been done without organizations, the King County Executive Office, Representative Tana Senn, Senator Jeannie Darneille, and Representative Noel Frame, along with the support of many other legislators!

From my generation to yours, THANK YOU!

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