A peek into juvenile detention | Editor's Note

By Sara Bruestle | Nov 16, 2016

I recently visited Snohomish County’s Denney Juvenile Justice Center for the first time.

I was invited to the juvenile justice center for its Day of the Dead celebration on Nov. 2.

The Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, a Mexican holiday that honors the memories of deceased loved ones.

Teenagers – in detention and on probation – decorated several altars with photographs, sugar skulls, candles, colorful flowers, traditional breads and other memorabilia to remember their dead loved ones.

The Day of the Dead event kicked off a new series of celebrations to learn about and share each other’s cultures and traditions.

Since the altars at the celebration were only from youth on probation, I asked to see the ones the teens in detention decorated, as well. My request turned into a tour through the detention facility.

No cameras were allowed. Sorry.

Denney staff launched the series with the Day of the Dead because Latinos are largely overrepresented in the juvenile justice system – not just in the county, but across the country.

Through July 1-Sept. 31, 19.8 percent of the youth put into detention at the county’s juvenile justice center were Hispanic.

Latinos make up 14 percent of Snohomish County’s population. That’s nearly a 6 percent difference.

Six percent may not seem like a lot, but it is, because that is more than 25 percent higher than the county’s population.

“There’s a disparity there,” said Mike Irons, the program manager for Snohomish County probation. “If it’s at 14 percent in the general population, theoretically it should also be at 14 percent in detention.”

Irons said those disparities increase as youth go deeper into the juvenile justice system.

It’s pretty sad.

Irons is the go-to guy for statistics on the Denney staff. If you need numbers, he’ll have them.

Quarter by quarter, employees record the percentage of white, Hispanic, Asian and black youth in the probation and detention systems. It’s so they can track and understand imbalances in representation.

“What we’re tying to do is figure out, step by step, if there are policies we can make changes to to produce better outcomes for those kids so those disparities don’t get larger the deeper you go into the system,” Irons said.

“We’re tracking the data to see where those jumps in disparities happen.”

No need to say, Irons said the Day of the Dead also was beneficial to Denney staff, not just the at-risk youth.

“We’re trying to be more culturally inclusive,” he said. “We’re trying to help our staff get to know Latino culture in our community so they can do a better job of serving those kids.”

The Denney Juvenile Justice Center, formerly the Denney Youth Center, opened in 1998.

Although the building has more than 120 beds, no more than 100 of them have ever been filled.

These days, most of the beds are empty.

Just last week, on Nov. 10, there were only 15 youth in detention: Twelve boys and three girls between 10-18 years old.

That’s because, in the last 15 years, the number of teens put into detention has dropped dramatically.

Why the change? Research shows that detention doesn’t help cut down on the types of behaviors that lead to juvenile crime.

“We’re far less likely to use detention as way to change behavior,” Irons said. “We’ve got a lot of other steps that we take that are more effective.

“It’s hasn’t compromised community safety,” he added. “Juvenile crime rates over the last 15 years have really dropped significantly. Even though we incarcerate a lot less kids – and a lot less Latino kids because of those disparities – in our detention facility it hasn’t led to a compromise in that safety.”

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together." – James Madison

EMAIL OF THE WEEK: From Stephanie Wilson, librarian for Mariner High School: “Thank you for such a nice article in the Mukilteo Beacon on Matt de la Peña [‘Award-winning author inspires love for reading at Mariner,’ front page, Oct. 19]. Thank you for telling Madison Lewis’ story and covering Matt’s visit at Mariner. I really appreciate you going well beyond the story, talking to Matt, Madison and myself, since you weren’t able to make it on that day. I couldn’t wait to share this article with Madison and our staff.”

CALL OF THE WEEK: From Shane Leavitt, the father of Mukilteo’s newest Eagle Scout: “I just wanted to take a moment and give you a big thank you on your article on my son [‘Eagle Scout delivers supplies to schoolchildren in Africa,’ front page, Oct. 12]. I know I am biased, but it was really a pleasure to read and document a boy in our community who was changed by the Boy Scouts. Thank you for a complete interview and your great writing skills.”

POLICE LOG OF THE WEEK: A caller reported their Harbour Pointe home had been burglarized. The homeowner told officers that three burglars stole sunglasses and a bag of golf clubs from the garage. It was unclear if the garage door had been left open. The case is under investigation.

FIRE LOG OF THE WEEK: A caller requested a welfare check on an elderly man who appeared to be in need of medical assistance. The man was transported to a hospital with an unspecified medical issue.

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