For years, King County has allowed police officers to enter the juvenile detention facility and interrogate a youth before he or she has been charged and without an attorney present – a practice that many consider unfair and profoundly discriminatory.
Now, thanks to advocacy on the part of the Department of Public Defense (DPD), a proposal to end this practice is pending before the King County Metropolitan Council. Councilmember Dave Upthegrove has drafted a motion that would forbid law enforcement from questioning a young person detained at the county’s Youth Services Center without an attorney present.
Public defenders strongly support Upthegrove’s motion. Since nearly 70 percent of the children in detention in King County are of color, the county’s current practice, public defenders note, is inherently discriminatory. “In light of mounting concern about racial disproportionality in the juvenile justice system, this is a policy that simply doesn’t make sense,” said Lorinda Youngcourt, who heads DPD. “It’s not in keeping with our shared commitment to equity and social justice.”
The policy also flies in the face of what we know about youth. As Upthegrove notes in his motion, the U.S. Supreme Court has found that this kind of custodial interrogation can lead to false confessions, a travesty in criminal justice. And as the high court observed in J.D.B. vs. North Carolina, “That risk is all the more troubling – and recent studies suggest, all the more acute – when the subject of custodial interrogation is a juvenile.”
Experts in child development contend young people don’t have the psychological resources to resist the pressures of even commonly used police interrogation techniques. One study found that about a quarter of the youth interviewed believed they would give false confessions when confronted by an authority figure asking them questions.
Rick Lichtenstadter, a managing attorney for one of DPD’s divisions, said he has intervened to try to stop 15 or more such interrogations over the course of his career in juvenile defense. “I don’t think there’s an attorney who has worked there (at the Youth Services Center) who hasn’t had to try to stop this from taking place,” he said.
The practice is rarely in the youth’s interest, he added. “As we know, these kids rarely understand their rights.”
The policy is also not in keeping with the county’s own philosophical stance on youth justice. The court, acting as loco parentis, restricts who can visit a youth in detention, allowing, for instance, only parents and siblings under age 8. The county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention also notes that the purpose of placing youth in detention is not punishment but rehabilitation. Allowing law enforcement to question juveniles without the professional support of an attorney is a contradiction to these protective approaches.
The issue has gained national attention in recent months, adding momentum to DPD’s call to end the practice. In December 2016, after the U.S. Justice Department’s 20-month investigation into discriminatory practices by family court officials in St. Louis County, Missouri, the Justice Department and St. Louis County signed a memorandum of understanding prohibiting police interrogations at the county’s juvenile detention center “unless an attorney is present to represent the juvenile.”
“This was a game-changer,” Lichtenstadter said. “It’s great to have the Justice Department on your side.”
Upthegrove’s motion was introduced to the council in January. A hearing before the council’s Law and Justice Committee is tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, March 14. “If a child is in a King County facility, that child should have representation that looks out for the child’s interest,” Upthegrove said. “I look forward to working with my colleagues and all our county partners to successfully implement this policy.”
Youngcourt praised Upthegrove for taking the lead on this issue. “Dave has long been a champion for youth and racial justice. With this motion, he’s helping the county chart a better path in juvenile justice.”
Anita Khandelwal, DPD’s policy director, concurred. “An important debate is currently under way about the wisdom of constructing a new youth detention center in King County. But let’s not lose sight of what we can do right now to make a difference for youth in detention. This motion is a step in that direction.”