Crime

Remann Hall of today: Fewer kids in detention, more court proceedings for child abuse and neglect

T.J. Bohl, the Pierce County Juvenile Court Administrator, stands outside a classroom in the detention facility within Remann Hall, February 11, 2016.
T.J. Bohl, the Pierce County Juvenile Court Administrator, stands outside a classroom in the detention facility within Remann Hall, February 11, 2016. phaley@thenewstribune.com

There was a wing of Remann Hall about 12 years ago that didn’t work.

That part of the juvenile detention center in Tacoma saw assaults, brawls, kids reporting being violated.

“It was a terrible place,” retired Pierce County Superior Court Judge Tom Larkin said recently. “We shut ’er down.”

That happened in 2003, but staff members still half-joke about having flashbacks when they step into the old wing, now used for storage.

Since then the work of Pierce County’s juvenile justice system has drastically changed.

Today, instead of detention, low-risk young offenders are sentenced to a series of alternative programs the county offers, with focuses such as boat-building, art and recreation, all with an underlying theme of learning life skills.

The result has been fewer kids being detained, fewer committing felonies and experts looking to Pierce County as a model for what a juvenile court should be.

“About 16, 17 years ago I showed up at Remann Hall as a new judge, and I was sitting in the courtroom, and it just seemed like all the time I’d see the same kids coming back,” Larkin said. “What good were we doing, was what I thought.”

He and others looked to work being done elsewhere that focused on keeping juveniles who committed crimes out of detention facilities such as Remann Hall.

Instead of detention, a few places in the early 2000s were starting to focus on alternative programs, and saving detention for high-risk offenders.

That made sense to Larkin, who helped connect Pierce County with the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, which today is in place in about 300 counties across the country.

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“There was a time 10, 15 years ago, where everyone in the country thought the best way to achieve public safety was to lock people up,” said Rand Young, state coordinator for the initiative.

Mixing kids who were deemed a low risk to the community with those more troublesome was a bad idea, he said.

“Kids are very impressionable,” Young said. “They can actually learn to become more criminal.”

Keeping only high-risk youth at Remann Hall has paid off, he said.

“In Pierce County,” Young said, “they’ve been able to drop their detention populations drastically, and at the same time, juvenile crime has gone down.”

Still, a probation officer recently confided to Larkin, making a commitment to lock up fewer kids seemed crazy at the time.

“We were all scared to death,” the probation officer told him, saying the worry was that they weren’t going to be able to hold the kids accountable.

“But in the end, everybody agrees with what we did,” Larkin said.

The changes dropped Remann Hall’s average daily population to 26 in 2015 from 163 kids in 2000. Keeping fewer kids detained hasn’t led to increased crime, officials said.

Criminal charges against juveniles have dropped from 3,010 filings in 2002, down to 1,134 in 2015, according to Pierce County court records.

There was a time 10, 15 years ago, where everyone in the country thought the best way to achieve public safety was to lock people up.

Rand Young, state coordinator for the initiative

The county started working on detention alternatives in late 2003, and in early 2004 officials closed the problem wing of Remann Hall.

“It was just becoming more and more unsafe,” said TJ Bohl, the administrator for Pierce County Juvenile Court.

The wing housed kids sometimes five to a room, with staff members checking on them only every 15 minutes. The area initially was meant for foster care services, but ended up housing offenders when Remann Hall got more kids than it bargained for.

But with fewer teens to detain, officials were able to move those who remained to individual rooms upstairs.

The cells look out onto common areas, where the kids spend the day when they’re not in an adjacent classroom. The setup makes it infinitely easier for adults to supervise, officials said.

Now, Pierce County has one of the most progressive juvenile courts in the country, Young said, in part because Bohl and his staff run it like a successful business. Decisions are based on thorough research and data, and staff and administrators are willing to try new things, Young said.

Also helping, he added, are judges who are constantly looking for better ways to administer juvenile justice.

“The proof is in the pudding,” said Larkin, who retired last year. “Juvenile crime has been going down every year since we started these programs.”

So, with fewer offenders to oversee, is there less work for the juvenile court to do at Remann Hall?

Criminal charges against juveniles have dropped from 3,010 filings in 2002, down to 1,134 in 2015, according to Pierce County court records.

No, because at the same time criminal cases have gone down, dependency cases — in which the state steps in for a child’s welfare — have gone up.

“These are kids that are being abused and neglected, and being referred to the court at a higher rate than before,” Bohl said.

Pierce County had 719 dependency cases in 2015, compared with 494 in 2003. And the county is not alone.

“Juvenile courts are seeing more and more cases of abuse and neglect,” Young said. “Staff that used to handle criminal cases now can be shifted toward kids that are younger and coming in on noncriminal abuse and neglect cases.”

Young said he’s not sure what has driven up dependency numbers. Possibly there’s more reporting of abuse and neglect, or the economy has played a role, he guessed. He hopes the increased caseload can be a good thing eventually.

“Hopefully,” he said, “if we can intervene earlier when kids are first identified, if we can get involved in their lives and try to repair some of the harm and dysfunctional families, we may be more likely in the long run to continue reducing juvenile crime.”

Figuring out how to handle the growing number of dependency cases is an area for Pierce County to work on, like other juvenile courts across the country, Young said.

As for Remann Hall’s future, Young said Pierce County is on the forefront of a new juvenile justice trend: trying to involve families more in the court process.

A family council was recently created, giving families that have gone through the court a voice in what improvements could be made.

Among ideas the council has discussed are ways for working parents to participate in court proceedings remotely, and improving literature given to families about the juvenile court processes.

“This idea of involving parents and children and partnering more with the community is a pretty radical idea, but it makes a lot of sense,” Young said. “Parents probably know their situations far better than the courts do.

“I think we’ll learn through places like Pierce County that this does in fact work better, and in some ways takes a bit of a burden off juvenile courts.”

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268, @amkrell

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