A proposal before a committee of the King County Council would guarantee youth in custody at the youth detention facility access to an attorney before being interviewed by law enforcement, a motion that’s causing tension between those who want to protect the constitutional rights of children and others who believe it will impede criminal investigations in which the youth themselves may be victims.
Youth in custody must have a lawyer present if they are being interviewed for the charges on which they were detained. But under the current policy in King County, law enforcement may go to the youth detention facility to interview young people in custody about crimes for which they have not been charged, and they can do so without an attorney present.
This happened 23 times in 2016, according to data provided by the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. In two of those cases, youth in detention were charged with crimes based on their responses to law enforcement. One was charged in a shooting, the other in a rape of a 13-year-old girl. The latter also resulted in charges against two adults.
The motion, sponsored by King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, would guarantee young people access to a public defender either in person or over the phone to explain their rights and prevent them from potentially incriminating themselves in other crimes.
For Upthegrove, the change is based in a better understanding of adolescent brain science, which suggests children are less able to make calculated decisions while under stress than their adult counterparts. He also said that the burden falls disproportionately on children of color and children from low-income families who are less likely to get private counsel.
“It’s one of many ways that the system is set up that subtly reinforces racial and income inequalities within the criminal justice system,” Upthegrove said.
Those who speak critically of the plan, such as King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, say that the motion was proposed without consulting law enforcement, and that it could result in criminals walking free by shutting down investigations before they begin.
In some cases, the children themselves may be the victims.
In two of the interviews, police from Renton contacted a 12-year-old victim who had been sexually assaulted by an adult male. She was in custody on a dependency case, rather than as a suspect in a crime. That man has been charged with rape of a child, according to the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
“The police tell us that the interview will never happen if the public defender has to be there,” said Satterberg.
The motion has support from the Department of the Public Defender, which would be able to provide the services at no additional cost to the county while helping children facing the stress of interrogation without incriminating themselves.
Public defenders are there to look after their clients’ best interests, not to prevent law enforcement from doing their job, said Anita Khandelwal, policy director for the King County Department of Public Defense.
However, that can’t happen if children don’t have access to counsel, which can take days if they get booked over the weekend.
“The kids are like sitting ducks,” Khandelwal said.
Ultimately, the motion is about offering the same protection to kids with few resources as those whose parents have means, Khandelwal said.
The Law and Justice Committee will vote on the motion on April 11. If it passes, the motion will go to the full council.