Bill would curtail solitary confinement for detained kids

The new state law would make an exception for children at risk of harming themselves or others.

Strom Peterson is the sponsor of HB 2277.

Strom Peterson is the sponsor of HB 2277.

OLYMPIA — State lawmakers are weighing a bill that would make Washington the country’s 11th state to limit or prohibit solitary confinement as a punishment for detained children.

HB 2277 defines solitary confinement as separating a juvenile from others for more than 15 minutes and would ban the practice, limit the amount of time a minor can spend in isolation and require detention centers to document when a boy or girl is placed in isolation. The bill passed through the House last week with bipartisan support and is currently in a Senate committee.

“Anyone who takes an educated look at juvenile solitary confinement would immediately realize that it’s a cruel violation of the Constitution,” said Kendrick Washington, a lobbyist, civil rights attorney and youth policy counsel for the Washington branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The bill prohibits the use of solitary confinement as punishment, but there are instances in which a child can be held in isolation, including if they are at risk of harming themselves or others. With HB 2277, minors can be placed in isolation for no more than four hours in a day, and must have access to clothing, a mattress with bedding, a toilet, a sink, a shower and reading and writing materials. Pregnant juveniles cannot be held in isolation.

Solitary confinement for juveniles is already banned in federal facilities and prohibited or limited in 10 states. Additionally, youth solitary confinement was banned in King County facilities in 2017.

The bill was partially drafted by Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

“Evidence shows that solitary confinement is not effective at curbing behaviors and makes rehabilitation harder,” Ferguson said in an emailed statement. “I will continue to work on criminal justice reforms that reduce recidivism and make our system more humane and fair.”

HB 2277 also requires county juvenile detention facilities to document when a child is placed in isolation. It also requires the state Department of Children, Youth and Families to adopt a policy regarding the use of isolation by July 2021. Detention centers have until December 2021 to indicate whether they will adopt the state’s protocol.

The state agency also must compile monthly reports on children placed in isolation.

“Prior to this bill, there really wasn’t any kind of accountability for documenting the use of solitary confinement,” Washington said.

The bill also prohibits minors charged as adults from being held in an adult jail for more than 24 hours without a court order.

Sponsored by Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, the bill cleared the House by a 76-20 vote last week.

“I’ve been looking at this issue for a few years now,” Peterson said. “It’s really just looking at some of the empirical evidence that’s out there about how damaging this is, especially to young people.”

All present Democrats and 20 Republicans supported the bill.

On Monday, a similar bill passed in the Senate 38-10.

“I think that whatever our political differences may be, whatever diverse background we all come from, the one thing that unifies people is our love for children,” Washington said.

There is no timeline for a Senate vote on HB 2277, but Peterson said he was confident lawmakers will get the bill to the governor “in a timely fashion.”

Lawmakers are also trying to find money in the budget for another 70 to 75 employees across detention centers in the state. The added staff isn’t needed solely to help with the solitary confinement bill, but would also address other health and safety policies, Peterson said.

Next, Peterson said the state Department of Corrections is working to reduce the use of solitary confinement with adults. A similar legislative ban on the practice could be introduced in the next few years.

“This is not the end of the solitary confinement discussion,” he said.

Joey Thompson: 425-339-3449; jthompson@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @byjoeythompson.

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