YMCA joins effort to stanch flow of Pierce County kids into incarceration

Kathy Holand, a Pierce County Juvenile Court supervisor, watches a class at the UW YMCA on Jan. 29. Some of the kids are here as an alternative to detention at Remann Hall.
Kathy Holand, a Pierce County Juvenile Court supervisor, watches a class at the UW YMCA on Jan. 29. Some of the kids are here as an alternative to detention at Remann Hall.

Basketball, weight lifting, rock climbing.

The YMCA program that was part of 17-year-old Josh’s juvenile court sentence was fine by him.

“I was like: ‘Really? This is the class that I have to do? That’s cool,’ ” the Pierce County teen remembered.

So cool, in fact, that several months after he finished the class he still shows up sometimes.

“I kind of keep coming back,” he said.

And to the people overseeing the program, that indicates it’s working.

“One of the good signs is kids who come back when they’re not ordered to,” Pierce County Juvenile Court Administrator TJ Bohl said.

The YMCA Evening Center Josh was sentenced to is a new alternative judges can choose, instead of sentencing kids to juvenile detention at Remann Hall.

Instructors teach skills such as budgeting, and job and college preparation, but also give teens time to use the facilities at the University Y in Tacoma, where the six-week class is held Friday nights.

The program started in April as the newest addition to Pierce County’s list of detention alternatives, which began expanding as part of a national push toward incarcerating fewer kids.

Juvenile Court started making that change in 2004 with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, as part of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, which is in place in about 300 of the nation’s counties.

The foundation found keeping teens locked up increased the chances they’d offend later on, and that those who didn’t present much risk to public safety were better off in the community, doing alternative programs.

Other places use Pierce County as a model and come to learn about its detention alternatives. In addition to the YMCA program, Pierce County’s other alternatives focus on art, boat building and community service.

“Just having one program that we send them to doesn’t work for all kids,” Bohl said.

The goal: Send low- and moderate-risk juvenile offenders to alternative programs, and reserve detention for high-risk youths, he said.

A child charged with a crime gets a low-, moderate- or high-risk designation based on the crime, previous offenses, school and family involvement and other factors.

Murder, for example, automatically sends a kid to juvenile detention, Bohl said. But those convicted of less-serious offenses might be eligible for the alternative programs.

“They do not need to be in detention, most of the kids we have in front of us,” said Superior Court Judge Susan Serko, who presides over the Juvenile Court. “They need to be in the community.”

In 2000, before the push for those programs, the average daily population of Remann Hall was 163 kids. In 2015, it was 26. And during that same time period, the county saw a 66 percent drop in felony charges against juveniles.

Serko said she can see the relief on the faces of juveniles and their parents when she sentences someone to an alternative program.

“It’s really beneficial, you know?” Josh said of the YMCA class the court ordered him to take. “It’s just really about kids getting better, and that’s really what probation is about.”

Instructors talk about the kids’ futures, said Josh, who in the class built a resume he plans to use to search for a job. Construction might be a good fit for him, he thinks.

Before, he admits, he wasn’t very motivated. The class changed that.

“It forced me to get back on the straight and narrow,” he said. “It just gives me all the more reason to do better.”

Kids in the class also are welcome at the late-night program at the downtown Y, and to a Saturday youth program the organization offers. And those who finish the court-ordered class curriculum have an opportunity to earn a Y membership.

“That’s what we’re striving for — is when they’re done, to still have that positive support system,” said Chris Spivey, the Y’s teen director, who helps run the class.

Pierce County provides transportation for the kids and assigns a probation officer to the program, and dedicated $4,000 in grant money to the class for 2016, which covers dinner for the kids and other supplies.

During a recent lesson, the kids tossed a ball, and each person who caught it answered a question.

When did they do best in school?

“If you have a good start to your morning, your day goes better,” one boy answered. That means getting enough sleep and having breakfast, he said.

How can they make a difference?

“I can make a difference by living,” another boy said, adding he wanted to do that through technology, possibly by becoming a hacker.

Instructor Clarissa Fletcher encouraged him.

“There are actually employment opportunities for people who want to hack to do it in a positive way,” she said.

Between three and five adults help run the class each week. Most are Y staff members. Fletcher is a youth probation officer.

One teen in particular made her think that “we’re in the right spot,” she said.

The boy didn’t open up until the fourth week of the class, at which point he shared that his father died when the boy was young, and that he had trouble sleeping.

“It was the kids that helped him process that,” Fletcher said.

At that time, the class was only four weeks, which meant that was the boy’s last day in the program.

It’s six weeks now, to allow more time for those sorts of breakthroughs.

But there’s one matter the kids never have to talk about in the class, unless they want to: their crime.

“We don’t know that and we don’t ask for that,” instructor Earl Williams said. “While they’re here, it’s their world.”

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268, @amkrell

How to help

To volunteer or donate to the YMCA Evening Center, call Chris Spivey at 253-460-8826, or email