Uncorking crime

Why did the Legislature decide to let the juvenile-crime genie back out of the bottle?

THE 17-YEAR-OLD I'll call Jose is speaking with me about the state's juvenile jails. "Most people don't really get rehabbed in there, you know," he says. He should know—it hadn't happened to him by the time he got out of the Maple Lane detention center in March, where he was serving a one-year sentence for a stabbing related to his crack dealing. The urinalysis tests he was forced to take as a condition of his parole kept coming back dirty, indicating drug use. So his parole officer sent him back to Maple Lane for another 30 days.

Finally he decided to change. "It helped when I got locked up," he says. "I had more time to think. I asked myself, 'Do I want to keep going back to the same place?'" While such professions of transformation can't be taken on faith, Jose seems to be doing well for now. The slender youth with shoulder-length dark hair attends an alternative school located above the Seattle office of the state Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration (JRA), which administers parole, and spends three hours a day after school in a landscaping program run by the office.

Some of Jose's friends, released from jail more recently, are having a different experience. If they want to take drugs, skip school, or hang out with old gang buddies, there's little the state is trying to do to stop them. In one of the odder moves by a purportedly tough-on-crime Republican legislature, the state eliminated juvenile parole as of August 1 for everyone but sex offenders and the 25 percent of young criminals considered at highest risk of re-offending. (Authorities here don't know of any other state that has similarly ditched routine juvenile parole.) The JRA estimates that 800 kids a year around the state now will be released without parole; 272 are already out without the kind of supervision that kept tabs on Jose until he finally began turning his life around.

Just about everyone involved with juvenile offenders—prosecutors, prison officials, social workers, and parole officers—is appalled. "It doesn't make any sense," says Pierce County Prosecutor John Landenburg, who has been outspoken on the issue. "You only have to understand that 95 percent of all juvenile criminals end up staying with the county." He is referring to county youth detention facilities rather than state institutions like Maple Lane or Echo Glen. Only the most dangerous 5 percent—designated as such because of extensive criminal history or the commission of particularly violent crimes—are incarcerated by the state. Since only this 5 percent is eligible for parole, the state actually is releasing unsupervised 75 percent of the most dangerous 5 percent of juvenile criminals in Washington.

Among those scheduled for August release without parole are a 17-year-old girl with 40 assaults to her name and a 19-year-old boy who began committing crimes at age 12 and was sent away most recently for assaulting a pregnant woman while breaking into her car.

One wonders what those crime-stopping Republicans were thinking. The same legislature passed a sweeping juvenile crime bill in 1997 that in many ways cracked down on underage criminals—by sending older teens to the adult system, for example. The bill also allocated $4.5 million in the following biennium to set up a system of what is called "intensive parole" for highest-risk offenders.

Gaining popularity across the country, intensive parole calls for much closer supervision of offenders. As it is being implemented in this state (in what may be the nation's first statewide program), parole officers or their assistants meet with kids 14 times per month immediately after their release, and four times monthly as the six-month period of supervision winds down (previously, parole officers were required to meet only twice each month with the kids on their caseload, though in reality they often met more frequently). Intensive parole also involves curfews, electronic monitoring, and—for kids with no constructive agenda—a mandate to report daily to a center where they will take classes and join work crews.

Juvenile justice workers had been advocating for intensive parole for some time. What they didn't expect was that the Legislature, in funding the costly program, would cut $1.3 million in funding for regular parole.

SO BAFFLED ARE some observers that they assume the failure to allocate money for standard parole was an oversight that somehow slipped into the massive 1997 bill. But Rep. Tom Huff, that year's chair of the House Appropriations Committee, says not only that the move was deliberate but that he does not regret it. In the drive to save taxpayer money, he says, "we have to make tough decisions." And he points out that the Legislature actually put more money overall into juvenile parole because the intensive system costs so much. "We put money into areas where we felt, based on research, that it would do the most good."

For Huff, the question of research is central. He argues that parole administrators have not been able to supply any "conclusive evidence" that ordinary parole works. While conceding that Gov. Gary Locke is likely to propose restoring funding for parole in his December budget, Huff believes that the Republican caucus won't be inclined to vote approval unless appropriate research studies can be found.

But the studies just aren't there, according to Troy Armstrong, director of the Center for Delinquency and Crime Policy Studies in Sacramento and an architect of the intensive parole model that Washington state is following. He says that a prevailing skepticism as to whether juvenile criminals can be rehabilitated has led to a paucity of research funding. And contrary to Huff's implication that solid research was behind the Legislature's decision to fund intensive instead of ordinary parole, Armstrong says no such data yet exists, though he's working on it.

On the one hand, it's not hard to understand skepticism about traditional parole's usefulness. The rate of recidivism among juvenile offenders is a high 39 percent in Washington state, according to a 1995 study by the Institute for Public Policy in Olympia. But Sid Sidorowicz, the state's assistant secretary for juvenile rehabilitation, maintains that the problem has been inadequate resources and overly large caseloads for parole officers. "The answer is not to abandon parole, like the state did, but rather to put more into it," he says.

One could also point out that the recidivism rate still leaves 61 percent who are not re-offending.

Many experts think recidivism will rise in the wake of the elimination of routine parole. Seattle parole officer Sherman Wilkins fears that in order to convince the Legislature to reverse course, "we're going to have to sit here and wait until some rich upstanding citizen gets victimized by someone who should have been on parole."

Nothing on that scale appears to have happened as yet. But Mickey Hoyt, principal at Echo Glen's school, notes that requests from other schools for Echo Glen transcripts have declined by nearly half, indicating that many of those released are not re-enrolling in school. One of her teachers recently ran into a former pupil who, lacking a parole officer's supervision and guidance, was back working the streets as a prostitute. And among juvenile offenders, stories circulate about kids waiting to be freed so they can go back to partying with their friends.

Some kids who have been on parole pity friends who will do without. One 17-year-old girl relates how her parole officer made her go to school. "I'm reading better, I'm doing math better," she says. A 14-year-old boy, who generally considered parole a "pain in the butt," still appreciated how it landed him a job in the parole office's landscaping program. He lost his job and his parole officer when the new system kicked in.

Their attitudes testify to how parole supports as well as disciplines kids. The approach of Seattle parole officer Paul Hanley is a case in point. He routinely goes out of his way to put kids on the right track, and did so even under the old system of regular parole, under which he supervised kids for three- to six-month stretches. While that system required him to meet with kids twice a month, he did so at least weekly. "Most of us set up our own standards," he says.

Many a time, he brought kids to a job site and sat with them while they filled out an application and were interviewed. Perhaps more impressive are the daily life skills he imparted to kids who often didn't have the benefit of family examples. "I taught kids how to drive, I taught them how to tie a tie," he says. He made sure they had identification in their wallet, in the form of a Social Security card, driver's license, or birth certificate. "When a dude's got stuff in his wallet, he's more a part of the mainstream."

Hanley admits to being discouraged by the juvenile recidivism rate. Yet he says his personal experience gave him the impression that the program was succeeding rather than failing. "I was having success: GEDs, graduations, jobs, promotions." Now he and his colleagues will get a crack at only the least likely to succeed.

 
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