The vote was expected to be unanimous, and so it was (with a couple of absences): Today the King County Council banned solitary confinement for minors at the King County Jail and Maleng Regional Justice Center.
The legislation directly addresses concerns in a recent lawsuit against the county, brought by teenagers charged as adults (known as "auto-decline" cases) and put in solitary confinement in the county's adult jails. The lawsuit argues that all youth placed in adult jails "face a substantial risk of serious harm" because of the significant impact solitary has on developing brains, and because of the lack of educational programming the teens received while imprisoned.
King County Council Member Claudia Balducci, formerly the director of the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, said that juvenile solitary detention has been prohibited in the juvenile facility since the '90s, and that the problems with solitary confinement at the adult jail were the result of "well-intentioned advances." Juveniles charged as adults used to be placed with adult cellmates until the arrival of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, when they were put into separate units. Separating juveniles created more behavioral problems, Balducci said, and they were isolated for disciplinary reasons at a higher rate.
Banning solitary for juveniles "puts us absolutely on the right side of history and detention practice," Balducci said. She later added that she thought the same ban on solitary would eventually follow for adults.
Crucially, the ordinance also requires that imprisoned juveniles receive full access to educational programming.
But public defenders have long advocated for addressing another issue that placed teens in solitary confinement: the state's practice of charging juveniles as adults altogether. The state's auto-decline statute dictates that juveniles, if they commit serious enough crimes, be charged as adults. Robbery was the most common offense that triggered auto-decline cases last year, according to the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office.
In October, King County Department of Public Defense policy director Anita Khandelwal said that her agency was working with Columbia Legal Services to try to change the state law.
The county, which recently adopted a public health approach to juvenile justice, still faces criticism for its plan to construct a rehabbed youth jail as part of its Children and Family Justice Center. To that end, in addition to banning solitary confinement, today King County legislators passed another ordinance adopting policy and architecture recommendations from a University of Washington report published this summer as guidance for the county's controversial project. After significant pushback from activists, several legislators, including King County Council Member Rod Dembowski, have come out against the project outright. In a phone call last week, Dembowski said that he believed some positive improvements would come out of the county adopting the recommendations as policy guidance, but that it was still "putting lipstick on a pig."