The Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent.
The Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent. SB

Four minors placed in solitary confinement inside King County's adult jails are suing the county over its practice of detaining youths in isolation before their trial dates. The complaint doesn't name the minors (instead, it uses initials but names the parents), but describes the experiences of the 16 and 17-year-olds who have been kept in isolation, some for months at a time.

State law dictates that 16 or 17-year-olds bypass the opportunity to be judged by the juvenile court system if they commit a certain kind of crime. Teens who are charged with a violent felony, rape, and robbery or burglary in the first degree are automatically sent to adult court. But this practice has yielded severe disproportionality. Three of four plaintiffs in the lawsuit are black. In 2016, juveniles of color made up 86 percent of the population charged as adults.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court on Monday, claims that all youths incarcerated at the King County Jail or Maleng Regional Justice Center (RJC) in Kent, and particularly youths with disabilities, "face a substantial risk of serious harm" because of the county's use of isolation and a lack of adequate education provided to those in lockup.

The complaint alleges a set of harrowing conditions for teens in adult jails. "King County regularly confines children incarcerated at the RJC alone in miniscule, barren cells for 23 or 24 hours a day in a unit dedicated to isolating children ('Children’s Isolation Unit')," the complaint reads. "King County holds children in these isolation cells for weeks or months on end."

The complaint continues: "These children, many of whom already have mental illnesses, have little to nothing to do in their isolation cells: no meaningful human interaction, little to no education or programming, no music or television, and very few reading materials. Even when allowed out of their cells, children in isolation are alone in the day room. Any 'recreation' the children in isolation receive takes place alone in an empty, concrete pen."

For teens dealing with trauma, depression, or other mental health issues, these conditions exacerbate them and increase the risk of suicide and self-harm, the lawsuit says.

In addition, the lawsuit argues that teens in isolation are only given "a few minutes" of instruction and left to complete worksheets that make up their educational programming. "By holding children in isolation for long periods of time and refusing to provide them an adequate education, King County has violated and continues to violate the rights of all children held at the RJC; rights guaranteed them by the United States and Washington constitutions, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ('IDEA') and other applicable laws," the suit claims.

Anita Khandelwal, director of policy at the King County Department of Public Defense (DPD), says that public defenders have long raised concerns about children being charged as adults, as part of a practice known as the "auto-adult" or "auto-decline" statute.

"We as a matter of principle are opposed to auto-adult," Khandelwal said, noting that the DPD has been working with Columbia Legal Services, the law firm representing the minors in the lawsuit mentioned above, on changing state law.

"If we are going to detain children, then they should be treated as children," Khandelwal said.

According to a report on the juvenile justice system from the King County Prosecuting Attorney published earlier this year, the most common offense triggering auto-decline cases was robbery, then murder. We've reached out to King County for comment and will update when we hear back.

Update: A spokesperson for the county writes: "We just received the complaint, and we’re looking into each of the allegations. We are in communication with Columbia Legal Services. Deputy Executive Rhonda Berry is heading up our efforts on reforming youth detention, which includes youth at the MRJC. That work is continuing."