More than two decades have passed since the murder of 13-year-old runaway Rebecca Hedman spurred Washington State lawmakers to pass a bill allowing judges to send at-risk children to juvenile detention centers. But implementation of the “Becca Bill” has become controversial because Washington now uses the law to incarcerate children who have not committed any crimes more than twice as much as any other state.
In 1994, the year before the Becca Bill was enacted, Washington incarcerated juveniles for non-criminal offenses just 222 times. By 1997 that number had increased to 2,053. So-called “status offenders” – juveniles charged with offenses such as skipping school, coming home after curfew and not doing their homework or household chores – were locked up 2,812 times in 2013.
Rebecca Hedman, known as Misty to her friends, had become addicted to crack cocaine and was prostituting herself to pay for the drugs. She absconded from a drug rehabilitation program in Spokane. Then one day in October 1993, John Medlock, who paid Becca $50 for sex, demanded his money back because he was dissatisfied; she refused and he smashed her head six times with a baseball bat before dumping her body near the Spokane River. Medlock later confessed to the crime and was sentenced to 26 years in prison.
Becca’s parents lobbied to have a bill passed that gave more authority to parents of juvenile runaways. Before her murder, Becca had several encounters with police officers and social service providers, yet they did not notify her parents. Even the drug rehab program failed to tell them she had left. The idea behind the Becca Bill was for judges to have the option of detaining juveniles who repeatedly run away, skip school or break curfew; that would keep such status offenders off the streets, and possibly shock them into changing their behavior.
As passed in 1995, the Becca Bill gave judges the option to send at-risk kids first to a crisis residential center, or CRC. The CRCs were to be unlocked facilities, designed to keep children for up to five days to assess their needs for drug, alcohol or mental health services, or out-of-home placements away from abusive or neglectful parents. CRC staff would provide security, and door alarms would let them know if a child left without permission.
Prior to state budget cuts in 2009, there were 60 CRC beds in nine locations throughout Washington State. Now there are just 34 beds available, located in only five of the state’s 39 counties. As a result, most status offenders are sent to juvenile detention facilities where they are treated like criminals.
“They are put in with other kids who are more delinquent than they are,” said George Yeannakis, special counsel for Team Child, a Seattle-based youth advocacy organization. “There is no difference – it’s the same judge, the same court, the same detention facility. A lot of kids will see themselves as part of that system.”
Critics of non-criminal juvenile detention argue it damages children’s self-esteem by convincing status offenders they are bad kids and no better than criminals. Supporters of the system claim that without the threat of detention, judges would have no way to coerce kids into following court orders to attend school, obey curfews or seek drug or alcohol counseling.
The Becca Bill allows parents to use an “At-Risk Youth” (ARY) legal petition to obtain court orders that require children to participate in social services. It also compels school districts to file truancy petitions if a student has seven unexcused absences in a month or ten in a year. In 2013, 47% of juvenile status offenders were detained for violations of court orders in ARY or runaway cases. Another 42% were detained for truancy.
Ned Lauver, an associate school principal, wrote in Educational Leadership magazine that the correlation between truancy and lack of parental authority is not as strong as the one between poverty and chronic school absence.
“Poverty and school absence or truancy often feed each other,” he said. “The conditions that students living in poverty face (poor nutrition, lack of access to health care, even a lack of gas in the car at month’s end so that a child who misses the bus can’t catch a ride) exacerbate poor attendance.”
According to the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, children subject to Becca Bill court orders are disproportionately poor, and disproportionately from racial or ethnic minority populations. Placing them in juvenile detention may put them in a “pipeline to prison,” critics contend.
Despite the fact that more than 4 in 10 juveniles under Becca Bill orders are truants, just 17 percent of Washington school districts offer community truancy boards. The boards typically include counselors, school district officials, community volunteers and someone from the juvenile court, who meet with a student and his or her family to develop a plan to improve the child’s school attendance.
In districts that use them, the boards serve as a first stop for truant students, and they have helped keep hundreds of children out of court and thus out of juvenile detention, the Bellingham Herald reported. Under new legislation – H.B. 2449, signed into law in April 2016 – all school districts in Washington with 200 or more students will be required to have community truancy boards, starting in fall 2017.
“I think the biggest value of the truancy board is it gets to the real issue of why kids are truant or not going to school, whereas the courtroom doesn’t always get to the real issues,” said T.J. Bohl, Pierce County’s juvenile court administrator.
In practice, an appearance before a truancy board will automatically stay a Becca Bill petition against a student. If the child then follows the plan developed by the board, he or she will not appear before a juvenile court judge – an experience that may be unlikely to improve school attendance and could actually cause their behavior to get worse.
Senator Jim Hargrove was the original sponsor of the Becca Bill in 1995. He said he hopes the new legislation will ultimately give time for school districts to resolve a student’s attendance problems, and for juvenile courts to get a Becca petition dismissed before the child’s first court appearance.
“It seems to me to be a way we can divert maybe 70, 80 percent of these kids who have petitions filed on them to a truancy board, where there hopefully will be better outcomes,” Senator Hargrove said. “But we will still have a system that won’t allow anyone to slip through the cracks.”
Paying for the new system is another issue, though.
The state’s 2016 supplemental budget included funding for 10 new beds at CRCs and about $1 million more to pay for 23 beds at HOPE centers, which are homeless youth shelters that can also serve as detention alternatives. But only $350,000 was included for grants to help school districts provide community truancy boards, which won’t go very far when divided between the 295 districts in the state.
“It’s one more of these mandates on local school districts,” said Senator Doug Ericksen, who was one of six Republican lawmakers who voted against the legislation. “We keep taking up more and more teacher time, more and more administrative time, and we don’t give them any money to pay for this.”
Which, unfortunately, is often the result when it comes to efforts to improve the justice system: Lawmakers claim they want better outcomes, but aren’t willing to pay for them.
Sources: www.thenewstribune.com, Bellingham Herald, www.statusoffensereform.org, www.q13fox.com, www.washingtontimes.com
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login