State lawmakers just passed into law two bills – originally conceived by DPD and supported throughout the process by the department and its partners – that significantly reduce the harms of the criminal legal system for many of DPD’s clients.
Although amended, both pieces of legislation represent historic victories for people ensnared in punitive systems. A third bill signed into law builds on ongoing work championed by DPD and its partners to transform dependency law in the state.
“I’m grateful to our legislative partners and our community partners for all their work to effect meaningful change,” said DPD Director Anita Khandelwal. “We know that far-reaching systemic change is needed if we’re to truly support our clients. It was encouraging to see lawmakers recognize what we see – that carceral systems are harmful and certain policies compound their inherent racism and that dependency laws need to change so that we can strengthen families and keep children with their loved ones whenever possible.”
Limiting the harm of youth registration
After several years of strong advocacy by DPD, the legislature finally took action to reduce the harms of youth sex offender registration, passing in bipartisan fashion ESHB 1394. The bill’s goal – as its title made clear – is to create “a developmentally appropriate response to youth who commit sexual offenses.” The legislation is ultimately focused on promoting the wellbeing of vulnerable children.
To that end, the bill limits the list of circumstances that require a young person to register and completely ends registration for almost all youth under the age of 16. It also expands opportunities for treatment by increasing the pool of treatment providers and encouraging the development of additional evidence-based treatment programs. And for those who do have to register, it reduces the length of time for that obligation as well as the penalty for a failure to register.
Katie Hurley, DPD’s special counsel for criminal practice and policy and a leader statewide in calling for an end to this harmful practice, developed the legislation, testified in support of it numerous times, and encouraged lawmakers to consider research from experts in childhood sexual abuse, including two national experts – Dr. Michael Caldwell and Dr. Elizabeth Letourneau. Their work unequivocally demonstrates that requiring young people to register as sex offenders deeply harms them and fails to contribute to community safety. Many others also worked on and testified in support of the bill, including George Yeannakis of the state Office for Public Defense and Karen Pillar from TeamChild
As Katie and others told lawmakers, youth required to register are four times more likely to report having actively attempted suicide compared to unregistered youth; five times more likely to be approached by an adult for sex, and twice as likely to be the victim of sexual assault by an adult. They also told lawmakers that youth who commit sexual offenses have a very low recidivism rate and that there’s no correlation between registration and public safety.
The bill’s passage – three legislative sessions in the making – marks a milestone in DPD’s ongoing effort to make the system less harmful to young people. Two lawmakers were central to ensuring the bill’s success – Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, who chairs the Human Services, Youth & Early Learning Committee, and Sen. Noel Frame, D-Seattle, a member of the Senate Human Services Committee.
“The passage of this bill will help thousands of young people who will no longer suffer from the harm and trauma of registration,” Katie Hurley said. “I’m hugely grateful to our many partners who worked with us on this bill, to the national researchers who testified, and to the unflagging leadership of Rep. Senn and Sen. Frame. This is a huge step in supporting vulnerable young people.”
Limiting the impact of juvenile offenses
DPD also advanced EHB 1324, which significantly limits the requirement that judges automatically lengthen a person’s sentence due to adjudications from their youth. An “offender score” – based on prior convictions or adjudications – determines a person’s standard sentence range. This bill ends the automatic use of the vast majority juvenile court adjudications in calculating that score.
As DPD and others testified during the session, the automatic use of juvenile “points” in calculating adult offender scores compounds the injustices and racial inequities of the juvenile system. Ample research shows that BIPOC youth are more frequently arrested, charged, and convicted than white youth – despite reforms, the juvenile system remains profoundly racially disproportionate. Using those adjudications to more severely punish adults only serves to reinforce the racism and harshness of the juvenile system, DPD told lawmakers.
The use of juvenile adjudications to determine adult sentences stems from the “superpredator” myth of the 1990s – the racially coded claim, directly largely at Black boys, that certain children are inherently violent. Though that myth has long been discredited, Washington remained an outliner, one of the few states that continued to require the automatic inclusion of all youth felony adjudications in adult offender scores.
As introduced in 2021-2023, the legislation required not only an end to this practice but also a retroactive application – a recognition that if offender scores can no longer be made longer due to juvenile adjudications, it’s only fair that those currently serving sentences made longer for that reason are also owed relief. DPD strongly supported and worked for over two years to advance the retroactive application of the law; many of the people currently serving long prison sentences are former clients who have also been unfairly and excessively penalized for their behavior as children.
Unfortunately, lawmakers stripped the retroactivity clause from the bill; they also narrowed its reach, allowing some juvenile offenses (mainly adjudications for murder and Class A sex offenses) to continue to count automatically in calculating adult scores.
Even though the department was deeply disappointed by these amendments, DPD sees EHB 1324’s passage as a victory in reducing the harm of the criminal legal system.
“This bill will make a tangible difference for thousands of our clients,” Anita Khandelwal said. “Long sentences are a driver of mass incarceration, and anything we can do to shorten those sentences and make a harshly punitive system a little less punitive is movement in the right direction. But we still have a long way to go. We’re disappointed that people now in prison due to sentences made longer by this harmful policy will not be resentenced, and we’ll continue to work with our partners to ensure people receive the relief they deserve.”
Continuing the work to help families ensnared by the family policing system
Over the last few years, DPD has worked closely with the Keeping Families Together coalition to fundamentally transform dependency law in Washington state. A significant victory was SHB 1747, which went into effect last year and that requires courts in Washington to prioritize, at every stage of the case, keeping a child with their extended family if that child cannot be returned home. The law also prioritizes guardianships – when a child cannot be returned home to a parent, the law requires the state to demonstrate that it ruled out the less drastic step of guardianship before terminating parental rights.
In the session that just ended, advocates successfully continued this work with the passage of ESSB 5124. The bill requires the state to provide financial benefits to a child’s caregivers when a dependency case ends with a guardianship rather than an adoption, making the financial support available in a guardianship more equivalent to an adoption.
This is hugely significant, said Tara Urs, DPD’s special counsel for civil practice and policy, because the state should not require the termination of parental rights just to give caregivers support.
“To be safe, children sometimes need long-term caregivers other than their parents,” Tara said. “But our clients and other experts in the field tell us that children benefit when they can preserve as much of their identity and as many of their connections as possible, even when they can’t return home to their parents. Adoption requires the permanent termination of all parental rights, making the child a legal stranger to their parents, siblings and other relatives. Guardianships do not require that termination.
“When a judge orders a guardianship, children can maintain their original birth certificates and experience more flexible caregiving arrangements. It adds people to a child’s life without taking anyone away.”
KFT and other advocates, Tara said, will continue to work to change the narrative in our dependency cases from one that treats adoption as a goal to one that treats adoption as a last resort when other options for keeping children connected to their communities and families have failed.
Despite these victories, much work remains. An effort to recriminalize drug possession in the wake of the Blake decision fizzled in the final moments of the session, but the legislature will likely return to the issue. If so, DPD will continue to push for a more humane and compassionate conversation that centers research on addiction and the lived experience of our clients.
“We support increasing access to voluntary treatment, housing, and harm reduction strategies, and approaching those who use drugs with warmth and care,” Anita said. “In our work, which is so proximate to the harms of the criminal legal system, we know that care, not criminalization, is the only way to begin to repair the decades of damage done by failed war on drugs.”
Several other bills the department supported died at various stages in the legislative process – such as legislation that would raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction, “second chance” legislation that would provide sentence reviews to people who received long sentences between the ages of 18 and 25, legislation which would have expanded access and support to young people who aged out of foster care and into “extended foster care,” legislation that would have provided guidance about the content open adoption agreements and improved their enforceability, and legislation that would provide attorney consultations to parents signing voluntary placement agreements for their children. (However, a budget proviso will allow the state Office of Public Defense to implement an attorney consultation line for parents asked to voluntarily place their children in out-of-home care.)
The department, informed by the lived experiences of our clients, our frontline public defense teams, and our community partners, will continue to work to make the criminal legal and family policing systems less harmful. Each session provides another opportunity to build a more compassionate response to trauma, poverty, and racial inequity, Anita said. “And when we and our partners are successful, the results can be far-reaching.”