The Benton-Franklin juvenile court in Washington state is part of a national initiative that’s trying to make sure that youths in the juvenile justice system are treated fairly and have access to the right services. Many people think the kids are either getting a slap on the hand or should all be locked up. Court worker Jacque van Wormer said that outsiders need to consider that “when we’re talking about kids, we’re talking about families too.” Depending on the services offered and the steps taken by the youths, they may be diverted and never come back or they may end up spending their adult years in and out of prison.
Juvenile justice reform is the focus of Models for Change, a project of the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Van Wormer is the Models for Change coordinator for the bicounty system. The $120 million initiative aims to develop model reforms. Washington is one of four states researching select topics and analyzing the data with the goal of strengthening the juvenile justice system. Communities in Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Illinois also are participating. Community members in Washington state resoundingly agreed the juvenile courts should look at truancy and the number of truancy petitions filed, the coordination of mental health services and the possibility of disproportionate minority contact.