Juvenile crime rapidly climbs in Kent over two-year period

Assault with a firearm up 221% in 2023 compared to 2021; robberies increase 153%

Juvenile crime skyrocketed in Kent over a two-year period.

From 2021 to 2023, assault with a firearm jumped 221% (from 23 cases in 2021 to 74 cases in 2023). Robberies were up 153% (from 66 to 167). Vehicles thefts increased 151% (from 45 to 113). Homicides were up 100% (from 0 to 4).

“Unfortunately, we are seeing a steady increase over two years in juvenile crime,” Kent Police Chief Rafael Padilla said during his June 18 Public Safety Report to the City Council when he released the latest statistics.

Padilla said juvenile crime is up throughout the region, not just in Kent.

“The police department conducts investigations and makes arrests,” Padilla said. “Then cases are referred to the King County juvenile justice system for trials and sentences. It’s all regulated by state law and King County governance.”

Padilla emphasized what happens with cases after arrests are made in Kent has nothing to do with city leaders.

“This body of elected officials, the mayor and council do not control the outcome of cases,” he said.

Padilla told the council that just the prior night officers arrested a 16-year-old boy who had stolen a vehicle, fled, drove at a high rate of speed and flipped the car on Kent’s East Hill. His passenger, 18, was ejected and the vehicle partially landed on him, critically injuring him.

Kent Police arrested another 16-year-old boy June 24 after he reportedly carjacked a vehicle in Des Moines. The boy was armed with a gun when officers took him into custody at an East Hill apartment complex parking lot.

King County cases

The number of juvenile crime cases, compiled by the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, greatly increased from 2021 to 2023.

A total of 2,178 cases were received by prosecutors in 2023 compared to 1,144 in 2021, a jump of 90%, according to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office website dashboard. Cases actually filed were 683 in 2023 compared to 339 in 2021, a hike of 101%. Cases diverted were 874 compared to 439, a jump of 99%.

The number of cases diverted continues to be controversial as people argue for more jail time for offenders while others prefer diversion programs over juveniles sitting in a cell.

“Without accountability and consequences after committing crime, should we expect changes in behavior of youth?” Padilla said. “Is the diversion program working? Where is the data?”

Padilla said he wonders if it’s the right course of action by judges if a teen commits a violent crime with a gun, such as armed robbery and is given an ankle bracelet (to monitor) and sent home to their parents.

“Are they considering the public safety impact?” Padilla said.

Another sticking point looms around the limits of what prosecutors can do because of state sentencing laws set by the Legislature.

For example, Padilla said state law requires four prior arrests of a juvenile with a weapon before they can be incarcerated, meaning if a student brings a gun to school they cannot be put in jail until the fifth time.

Jimmy Hung, the chief deputy prosecutor of the Juvenile Division of the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, confirmed that’s how the system works. He said he often hears that prosecutors aren’t doing enough to prosecute juveniles.

“Prosecutors are doing what the law allows them to do,” Hung said at a recent Renton community forum, according to a recording provided by the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

Hung said a child with a gun, if arrested, charged and convicted, can serve at most 30 days in jail after each conviction. After the fifth conviction, a judge can issue a sentence between 15 and 36 weeks.

Only legislators can change that sentencing law.

Despite the limitations, Hung recently reached out by email to King County police chiefs and sheriffs in an effort to meet about ways to reduce juvenile crime.

“The focus of the meeting will be how we, together, can bolster our countywide response to juvenile crime,” Hung said. “The goal of meeting with each of your agencies is to strengthen our existing partnerships, identify local challenges regarding juvenile crime, and share information about new juvenile justice initiatives - including the Juvenile Division’s new J-Watch effort and our Safer Schools Strategy.”

King County Prosecutor Leesa Manion explained the two programs in an April email to city mayors, councils and police chiefs.

J-Watch was launched in February as a secure and dedicated venue for all law enforcement in the county to share and seek information regarding juvenile suspects.

“It is also a way for police and prosecutors to work together to solve serious cases,” Manion said.

The prosecutor’s office J-Watch team meets every Tuesday at 1 p.m. to collaborate with all King County law enforcement agencies to do case development and share information.

“J-Watch has been incredibly successful in solving juvenile crime,” Manion said. “For example, in some recent work with the Seattle Police Department (SPD), we were able to help SPD detectives in their efforts to identify, arrest and prosecute several high-impact juvenile offenders, including a juvenile suspected of murder. I encourage all law enforcement agencies to join these calls each week.”

In addition, this January, the prosecutor’s office launched its Safety Schools Strategy, which brings together school district leaders, teachers, police, prosecutors and community resources to try and prevent tragedies before they happen.

“Our partners include the Auburn School District, and our mutual investment in the success of our students, staff, and community will continue to be beneficial,” Manion said.

Youth detention

Another controversial topic surrounding juvenile crime has to do with the county’s plans for detention of youth, with proposals to close it and keep it open.

King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn has proposed that the County Council adopt a measure to keep open the Judge Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center in Seattle with secure detention services.

Other county leaders had looked at closing the facility in 2025, although that date recently has been pushed out to 2028.

“I also do not believe that eliminating juvenile detention by 2025 is achievable,” Manion said in her email. “Unfortunately, we have juveniles who commit serious violent crimes. The community is deserving of a respite from their behavior, and it is appropriate to hold these individuals in a secure and therapeutic environment.

“I have also been very forthcoming that we still have work to do to make our juvenile detention facility more therapeutic so that young people start to receive necessary behavioral health interventions from day one - even as they face charges in our juvenile justice system. Our decisions on whether to file or decline charges are based solely on our ability to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt and are in no way influenced by the aspirational goal of eliminating juvenile detention.”

Padilla agreed that the detention center is needed.

“We need a place hold violent offenders,” he said. “We have to have a system that balances public safety with accountability and restorative.”

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