Washington State in many ways is leading the nation when it comes to the juvenile justice system and in other ways we have room for improvement. As the co-chair of the Juvenile Justice Sentencing Reform Task Force, I have spent the last eight months working with my colleagues on the task force to identify policy changes to improve our state’s juvenile justice system.

Scientists have proven that our brains are not fully developed as adults until we are approximately 25 years old. They have found that during the teenage years, the reasoning and judgment areas of the brain are not as fully developed as adult brains are. This can often lead to impulsive and destructive behavior. Dr. B.J. Casey, Professor of Developmental Psychobiology at the Weill Cornell Medical College has proven this science and has argued her findings before the United States Supreme Court. (You may view a presentation she did in Chicago here titled The Teen Brain: Legal Implications that explains the science a little more.)

Members of the task force and I have also travelled to juvenile detention facilities across Western Washington. These visits have highlighted the diversity of the system and how each facility works with the resources they have.

There have been a couple trends that we have seen as we tour each facility. The first trend that we saw is that daily population rates at our facilities have gone down. This has been a result of the great work through diversions that some county prosecutors are implementing and falling crime rates. Pierce County has had success with their diversion program as an alternate to detention facility time for non-serious offenders.

The next trend we have witnessed is the increase in the number of young women who are in our juvenile detention facilities. While overall numbers are down, the population of young women detainees has risen.

A consistent and persistent reality is that there is a disproportionately high rate of incarceration of youth of color and youth who have been placed in the foster care system.

The Juvenile Justice Sentencing Reform Task Force recently had its last meeting and came up with a list of policy proposals that we will publish in our task force report to the Legislature in December. These proposals, if passed by the Legislature, will have a positive impact on our state’s Juvenile Justice System and I look forward to sharing those with you soon.