May 9, 2019
Statement: Washington State’s Reversal on Locking Up Runaways is a Major Step Toward Ending Youth Homelessness
By Casey Trupin
Director, Youth Homelessness

Governor Inslee and the Washington state legislature have taken an important step toward a more just and humane juvenile justice system for our state’s youth and families. 

In the wee hours of the last night of legislative session, lawmakers narrowly passed a plan to phase out the practice of incarcerating youth who commit “status offenses,” such as running away or skipping school. Our state owes this victory to the tenacious campaigning and deep expertise of youth advocates from organizations like the Mockingbird Society and YouthCare, along with other dedicated Raikes Foundation grantees like A Way Home Washington, TeamChild, Legal Counsel for Youth and Children and Columbia Legal Services, as well as legislators like Sen. Jeannie Darneille and Rep. Noel Frame.

For decades, our state has chosen to lock up youth who engage in what is often a response to trauma in their lives. In those same decades, overwhelming amounts of research on trauma, brain development and punishment have made clear that incarcerating youth for these “status offenses” only deepens their trauma and makes their path to stability steeper and more fraught.

A lack of resources paired with a narrow focus on short-term solutions has led our state’s court systems to become so reliant on this approach that, for years, Washington held the unfortunate title of the nation’s largest jailer of youth for status offenses. In 2014, Washington used this approach more than the next four most prolific states combined.

It is hard to overstate the amount of time young people, advocates, child development and mental health experts, families and many others have spent working to eliminate this harmful practice. When I started my career as a legal advocate for Washington’s youth, ending this practice was a high priority. I know firsthand that thousands of young people’s lives will be improved by the passage of this legislation.

This law is cause for celebration. Washington’s sea-change on status offenses will impact thousands of young people’s lives for the better. However, there is much work ahead to make sure those youth and families have access to support and resources in their communities to help them heal and find stability.  

I wrote last year that “Eliminating the ability to lock up young people for status offenses would be a major step toward breaking the homelessness to incarceration cycle.” When the Governor’s signature turned Senate Bill 5290 into law this week, the state of Washington finally took that major step.