On April 27, a 17-year-old Mount Vernon boy was charged in Skagit County Superior Court for his alleged role in a drive-by shooting a week earlier.

While he was charged as an adult, he was booked into the Skagit County Juvenile Detention Center — at least for a few weeks. Less than a month later, he turned 18 and was transferred to the Skagit County Community Justice Center.

A bill being considered in the state Legislature is likely to change that by extending the age of those eligible for juvenile detention to include 18- and 19-year-olds.

“Turning 18 doesn’t mean someone is miraculously of the adult mindset,” said Skagit County Superior and Juvenile Courts Administrator Lisa West.

Senate Bill 5122, which expands the juvenile court jurisdiction, was introduced this last legislative session, but was put on hold to give county juvenile courts time to make the necessary changes that the bill, when it becomes law, will require.

The bill is based on science that shows there is a difference between adult and adolescent brains — scientists agree the brain continues to mature until at least age 25 — and that the legal system needs to adapt to the science.

“We tend to not make the best decisions when we’re younger,” said Shawn Thompson, the county’s juvenile detention division manager.

The bill, which is likely to pass in the 2022 legislative session, could eventually expand the juvenile court’s jurisdiction to those up to the age of 24, West said.

That will result in some major and costly changes.

With one of the two oldest and most outdated juvenile detention centers in the state, Skagit County will have to start looking for alternatives.

“We are woefully unprepared,” West said. But keeping the current facility “is not going to be an option.”

BUILT IN 1962

Located above the Skagit County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office in downtown Mount Vernon, the Skagit County Juvenile Detention Center was built in 1962.

Most of its 19 cells surround an open common space, with stainless steel tables and attached benches in the center. The only thing that gives away the age of its inhabitants is a painted green tree mural that stretches throughout the space.

The juvenile detention center has an average population of seven to nine at any given time, West said.

The most recent data from the Skagit County Community Justice Center shows that should Senate Bill 5122 become law, about a half-dozen 18- and 19-year-olds would be added to the mix, she said.

Community Justice Center staff are working to collect the data for how that number would change if the legislation included 20- through 24-year-olds, West said.

With requirements to keep the older and younger populations separate, and the need to have separate spaces for females and vulnerable youths, or to abide by court-ordered requirements, the current facility will be too small to accommodate the new legislation, West said.

The center’s size isn’t the only issue. Its outdated layout and facilities do not allow staff to focus on their mission — rehabilitation — she said.

“What we have is getting further and further behind the rest of the state,” West said.

Statewide, juvenile detention facilities are holding fewer youths at any given time, West said. In Skagit County, that number has been reduced by about 80%, with only those who pose an active threat to themselves or others being held, she said.

“We are not a punitive system,” West said. “We are a rehabilitative system.”

Rehabilitation is something West and Thompson would look to continue as more people fall into the juvenile category.

The current facility has only one conference room for meetings with counselors or lawyers, one bare cell for those suffering from mental health crises, and an infirmary that for space reasons had to have its restroom removed, Thompson said.

Because of the space issues, 24/7 medical assistance is not available. Anything that can’t be handled on site requires the youth to be taken by ambulance to a medical provider, West said.

The facility is the only one in the state without an outdoor recreation area. The few skylights that have been added to the facility since 2014 provide the only natural light.

To get to the Skagit County Courthouse, the youths are led down an outdoor staircase and through a public parking lot that separates the detention center from the courthouse.

That leads to other safety concerns, and sometimes allows youths to at least attempt to flee, Thompson said.

“You’re trying to keep everyone safe. And it’s very hard,” he said.

Many of the issues with the detention center were what led local officials to ask voters to approve the new $60 million Community Justice Center for adults.

County Commissioner Lisa Janicki said she has concerns about what extending the age range to 24 would mean for the younger adults. She supports the idea that the county needs to find a solution for its outdated juvenile detention center.

“We all care about what happens to our kids who are in juvie,” she said. “The juvenile detention system is meant to get kids back onto a better path and not be so punitive in nature.”

TOUGH CHOICES

West said the juvenile justice department is taking seriously its responsibility to those it serves and to the taxpayers who may be called upon to foot the bill for a new facility.

County staff are looking at their options, including the old Skagit County Jail and the new Skagit County Community Justice Center. Both of those options present problems of their own, West said.

The old Skagit County Jail, which is an 83-bed facility across the street from the juvenile detention facility, offers something the juvenile facility doesn’t — an outdoor space — but lacks some of what is seen in modern detention facilities.

“Anything’s going to be better than (the current site),” West said, but added, “There’s a part of me that does ask: If it’s not good enough for the adult population, why is it good enough for kids?”

While the county has explored ways to utilize that space, cost is a factor. It would likely be expensive to remodel the old jail to suit the needs of a juvenile facility, Janicki said.

“It’s still very much a punitive environment,” she said. “I like to think of our juveniles as they’re in a way station, and they need to go through education and rehabilitation and reconciliation. I still have faith that that can be done with most of them. I don’t want to treat them like criminals. We can do better than that.”

Opened in 2017, the 400-bed Skagit County Community Justice Center has the space to accommodate those being held in juvenile detention, but was not built to house juveniles.

To keep juveniles there, West said the adult and juvenile divisions would have to operate as separately as possible — with only trained juvenile detention staff serving the juvenile population.

Even then, the adult facility may not be the best option for the youths. While their detention is to get them to take responsibility for their actions, the Community Justice Center is still a jail.

“We make a purposeful effort to rehabilitate kids so they don’t graduate to jail,” Thompson said.

While it is an option that will be looked at, Janicki said she doesn’t believe the Community Justice Center is the right place for the youths.

“Keeping them down at the Community Justice Center, I don’t think is really the intent of that proposed legislation,” Janicki said. “They really want them separated. You put those young adults in with (an adult) jail population ... it doesn’t go a long way to rehabilitating a person.”

Because the number of youths held in the detention facility has been small, another option that has been brought up is to contract to send them to better-equipped facilities.

But sending them outside their community has its own issues.

“When kids are here, our immediate goal is reconnecting them with a stable environment,” West said.

Shipping them off keeps them from their families and their community — the things West and Thompson believe are helpful in getting them back on better paths.

“We try to get them into a ‘change’ mindset,” Thompson said. “A lot of them don’t have hope, and that makes it difficult.”

Janicki said she would support sending some in the 20-24 age range to a regional facility, but agreed the younger youths should stay local.

“Investing at this end of someone’s life makes so much more sense,” Janicki said. “Hopefully, they end up never touching the law and justice system ever again.”

— Reporter Kera Wanielista: 360-416-2141, kwanielista@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kera_SVH, facebook.com/KeraReports

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