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Juvenile crime is up in King County. Officials can’t agree about how to handle it

caption: A King County Juvenile courtroom is shown on Wednesday, April 26, 2023, at the Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center on E. Alder Street in Seattle.
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A King County Juvenile courtroom is shown on Wednesday, April 26, 2023, at the Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center on E. Alder Street in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer


mid a recent spike in youth crime in King County, Jon Schuldt, Renton police chief, has noticed some concerning patterns in his city.

In April, a 16-year-old already on electronic home monitoring from an earlier charge allegedly killed another teen in Renton. In the same month, a 13-year-old was charged with an armed robbery he allegedly committed while out on electronic home detention. Three days later, the same boy was charged with committing a burglary in Tukwila. He was required to wear an ankle monitor after pleading guilty to two felonies last year, but had removed the devices four times, his probation officer told the judge.

In Schuldt’s view, King County has become too lenient on youth crime, leading to escalating crimes by the same young people.

“They get more brazen, juveniles do, and say, ‘If I can get away with this, what can I get away with next?’” he said.

As juvenile crime rates surge in King County, there is little consensus over the cause — or how to respond to it. It is difficult to disentangle how much of the increase is related to the pandemic and how much, if any, is due to laws and policies that changed in King County and statewide around the same time.

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Juvenile criminal bookings were up 61% in 2023, driven, in part, by a fivefold increase in charges related to car theft. The most serious felony charges, including armed robbery, first-degree assault, and rape, were also up more than 25%.

The statistics mirror a nationwide uptick in youth criminal charges in the past few years, in contrast to an overall decline in the past two decades following criminal justice reforms.

Some law enforcement officials, like Schuldt, say the problem has reached a crisis point in King County due to recent changes in how juvenile cases are handled by prosecutors and the courts. While the county has long used court-monitored diversion for a large proportion of lower-level cases, since 2021 prosecutors have instead diverted hundreds of first-time misdemeanors and lower-level felonies to the county’s Restorative Community Pathways program, a network of nonprofit organizations, for community-based diversion services.

Out of 747 youths diverted to community groups through 2023, 28% have had another juvenile criminal case referred to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, according to data provided by David Baker, who oversees data and analytics for the prosecutors.

“At this point, the number of juveniles with a new criminal case referral to juvenile court after being referred to [Restorative Community Pathways] does not provide any meaningful information about the program’s effectiveness or recidivism,” Baker said, because the county typically uses three years of data to calculate recidivism rates, as well as referrals to other jurisdictions and adult court.

RELATED: Group homes would replace youth jail in King County under plan to close detention center

Young people charged with more serious crimes, including violent felonies, are increasingly put on electronic home monitoring instead of detention or incarceration.

Of 55 youths on electronic home detention on a recent day, more than half faced violent felony charges, including armed robbery, drive-by shootings, and child rape, county data reviewed by KUOW shows.

“I understand the empathy for some of these juveniles that have committed crimes, but we can't do that at the cost of the safety to the public,” Schuldt said.

Others in the criminal legal system say the trend is better explained by a return to the pre-pandemic crime rates, and highlights the need for the community support many young people lacked during Covid-related closures.

“The pandemic has affected youth pretty seriously,” said Ketu Shah, presiding judge of King County Superior Court. “There have been learning gaps, there's been isolation of youth, and a lack of pro-social activities or situations that have affected youth. So I think all of those factors play into some of the behavior we're seeing that's coming into our court.”

To make decisions about diversion or detention, Judge Shah said, the court looks carefully at each young person as an individual, not just the charges against them.

That includes considering the support each youth has in the community, and the additional support the court can put into place, “whether it is through treatment, counseling, peer support, pro-social activities, education, job training, all of those different factors that we can try to bring to bear to try to help youth fulfill their promise,” Shah said.

“That's a complicated process. Sometimes we are very successful in getting kids on a path. And sometimes it takes a few times, because kids are learning,” Shah said.

RELATED: King County Council tightens oversight of youth diversion programs

What many young people are learning, Tukwila police say, is that even violent crime may not land them in detention.

In a recent Facebook post, Tukwila police described a recent incident in which multiple young people attacked an elderly woman as well as two people who came to her aid. In another incident, a youth from one car involved in a crash allegedly attacked a woman from another car in the collision. Under state law, juvenile misdemeanors typically result in diversion, not detention. Because the cases were deemed misdemeanor assaults, none of the young suspects could be booked into detention, police said on Facebook.

“Officers continue to face aggressive and hostile groups of juveniles who are committing violent crimes with a perception that there is lack of consequences for their actions,” Tukwila police said.

“This perception has led to an increase in repeat juvenile offenders, juveniles taking bolder actions with each additional offense, and juveniles that are not receiving the assistance and help that they desperately need.”

Anita Khandelwal, Director of King County’s Department of Public Defense, challenges the suggestion that the county’s strategy to minimize jail time is exacerbating juvenile crime.

“We do not believe these claims are borne out by the data,” Khandelwal said by email, pointing to the increase in the average number of youth in secure detention this year compared to before the pandemic.

“Detention intake criteria has not changed in at least seven years, and judges review the young people who are booked in to determine if release is appropriate,” Khandelwal said.

“Addressing the root causes of this behavior requires a response based in facts and doing what research has repeatedly shown works to reduce youth involvement in the criminal legal system: providing material supports that strengthen pro-social community ties and limiting incarceration,” Khandelwal said.

In an April 15 letter addressing the concern over rising juvenile crime rates, King County Prosecuting Attorney Leesa Manion told police chiefs, mayors, and council members that her office is taking steps to address the issue. Those include weekly calls where law enforcement agencies can share information on juvenile suspects with her office and with each other, and develop cases across jurisdictions.

Manion described the approach, called J-Watch, as “incredibly successful in solving juvenile crime,” citing recent work with the Seattle Police Department detectives to identify, arrest and prosecute “several high-impact juvenile offenders,” including one accused of murder.

Four months into 2024, juvenile courts in King County are handling even more cases than they did during the same time last year: criminal filings are up another 61%.

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