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Juvenile defense - Public Defense

Learn how the Department of Public Defense is making a difference for youth.

Like our practice in adult criminal defense, the Department of Public Defense’s (DPD) juvenile practitioners partner closely with their young clients, supporting them through the complexities of the criminal legal system and helping them obtain their stated objectives. Our defense teams practice at a high level, employing skilled advocacy, strong trial skills, and a deep knowledge of the law to support their clients.  

But juvenile defense is also a specialized area of law. Courts are beginning to consider the extensive research showing that youth differ from fully mature adults in meaningful ways. As a result, our attorneys receive extensive training in youth brain development and caselaw specific to young adults. They’re expected to understand education law, juvenile court rules, and the community programs and partners in King County that can support young people. Strong communication skills are critical. So is an understanding of the degree to which racial disparities exist within the system.

This is a small practice area but a very important one: Our young clients are full of promise, and we strive to ensure they get the support they need to reach their full potential.

Working to reduce the harm of the system

In King County, as in other parts of the country, community activists have worked to lessen the harm and reach of the juvenile legal system. Supported by research that underscores the harmful impact of youth prosecution, advocates have pushed for an end to the over-incarceration of children, seeking to replace a punitive system with community-based programs focused on restoration and healing. DPD attorneys and policy leads have played a role in these community-led efforts, using our expertise and institutional access to help implement new programs, reform court practices, and push for legislative changes at the local and state level.

These efforts have had an impact: Over the past 10 years, the number of system-involved youth has dropped significantly. One measure is the rate of filings by prosecutors. In 2014, prosecutors filed on average 137 cases against youth under age 18 per month; by 2021, they were filing on average 30 cases a month. Youth incarceration is another measure. In 2016, 836 youth were booked into detention; in 2020, 369 were incarcerated.

But much more needs to be done. Even while the number of young people ensnared in the criminal legal system has declined, punitive practices continue, and racial disproportionality persists. In 2020, for instance, more than 42% of the filings were against Black youth and 39% of the youth in detention were Black, even though Black youth comprise 10% of the population between age 10 and 18 in King County. Youth of color also continue to be transferred to the much harsher adult system for prosecution and incarceration at much higher rates. Research by Dr. Heather Evans of the University of Washington shows that of the 198 children sentenced as adults in King County between 2009 and 2019, 58% were Black children and 25% were Latinx children.

DPD continues to partner with the community to advance changes that will dismantle this harmful system.

Programs and other developments that have made a difference

Here are some of the programs that have helped young people avoid system-involvement and get community-based, trauma-informed support:

CHOOSE 180 is a community-centered organization that started in 2011 to break the school-to-prison pipeline. It offers diversion for youth facing felony offenses, a school-based diversion program that helps youth facing suspension or expulsion to stay in school, counseling, academic support, internships for youth impacted by the criminal legal system, and more.

Family Intervention and Restorative Services (FIRS), launched in 2016, offers youth arrested on allegations of family violence de-escalation counseling and space at an overnight respite center instead of secure detention. Families also offered counseling, mental health services, and other support.

Thanks to strong advocacy by DPD and community partners, King County Juvenile Court agreed in 2020 to adopt a trauma-informed and community-based approach to youth charged with a serious crime or facing a juvenile prison sentence. Called a Behavioral Health Response Model, it provides a path for a youth to get their charge reduced upon entry into the program and then further reduced to a misdemeanor or dismissed altogether at the end of probation. Youth referred to the program receive community-based, healing-centered services, rather than being torn from their families and communities and incarcerated in a juvenile prison.

Restorative Community Pathways, which went into effect in November 2021, enables young people, in lieu of facing criminal charges, to work with skilled community navigators in a community-driven accountability and restoration program. Navigators work with young persons and their support system to address needs, build community, and help youth reach their full potential.

Read about our work with partners to establish a youth right to counsel ordinance in Seattle and King County, followed by a new statewide law.