The youth jail in Central District.
The youth jail in Central District. King County

Right now, there’s very little policy prohibiting police officers from waltzing into the youth jail in Central District and interrogating children without an attorney present. That’s terrible for a number of reasons.

Research from the 1980s shows that juveniles, whose brains typically don’t share an adult’s capacity for reason and logic, aren't always capable of understanding when a police officer reads them their Miranda rights. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. You might remember being a kid and making dumb, impulsive decisions without thinking about the consequences of your actions. Now, imagine you're a kid in jail and a police officer wants to ask you questions. How would you know that you don't have to answer?

It can be disastrous when a child’s immaturity meets the American criminal justice system. The Innocence Project found that children are two-to-three times more likely than adults to give false confessions.

When the Department of Justice found widespread due process violations in St. Louis County’s juvenile system, one of the mandates in a resulting agreement with the county was to require attorneys be present whenever police interrogate juveniles held at the local lockup.

On Monday, King County Council could take that step, although without pressure from the feds. The Council will vote on whether to ban police from interrogating juveniles without the presence of a lawyer. If the proposal passes, the county will be going a long way to protecting detained children from self-incrimination or otherwise acting against their interest when speaking with police.

The proposal has its roots in the King County Department of Public Defense. About a year ago, attorneys visiting the youth jail to see clients would notice other kids alone with police in interrogation rooms, according to Anita Khandelwal, the department’s policy director.

“These kids are young, and they’re in detention and they’re by themselves. These are big decisions they are making, and they should have someone there to advise them,” Khandelwal tells The Stranger.

Her office brought the proposal forward to councilmember Dave Upthegrove, and it’s gained steam since then. Seven Seattle City Councilmembers in March signed a letter to the county council supporting the proposal. Their letter noted that about 70 percent of children held at the youth jail are people of color. Mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver has also spoken in support of the policy.