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State Invests In Its Youth, Good And Bad

Some life-changing pathways are opening up for Washington’s young people.

Declaring this the year of education, the Washington Legislature budgeted for an additional 6,390 students to enroll in the state’s colleges and universities.

This is a big vote of confidence in our youth. And a nod to kids who aim high and have a bright future.

Deeper in the state budget, however, the legislature funded a less lofty pathway for the young.

More than $24 million was earmarked for the prosecution and imprisonment of teen criminals.

The contrast in expectations and realities is chilling and stark.

On one hand, a growing segment of Washington’s young people will be attending college in the next five years. They will be cashing in on the state’s extraordinary good fortune in having Boeing, Microsoft and thousands of other thriving businesses actively looking for college graduates.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that starting salaries for computer science undergraduates now tops $36,000. But all kinds of fields are hot these days, from advertising to zoology.

On a recent visit to Spokane, University of Washington President Richard McCormick said, “There are just a whole bunch of opportunities out there for Washington’s public university graduates. Information technology, biomedical sciences, engineering. It’s just very exciting.”

But it isn’t so exciting for another growing segment of young people.

Just as the number of college-bound youth is on the rise, so is the number of juveniles headed for trouble.

The number of juvenile delinquents who commit violent crimes in the state has doubled in just five years. Boys under age 18 now commit 40 percent of all violent crimes in the state. By the year 2000, the number of 10- to 17-year-olds in Washington state will increase by 22 percent, suggesting a scary and violent time ahead.

Anticipating this change, the legislature hastily created a different kind of vocational program for this population. A bill passed this session triples the number of 16-and- 17-year-olds who will be tried and sentenced as adults for their crimes.

“The goal of the new law is to draw a line in the sand and say if you commit a violent crime as a teenager, we are going to send you to the adult system, send you on your way to three strikes and you’re out, send you on your way for hard time for hard crime,” said Larry Sheahan, the Rosalia Republican who crafted the tough juvenile justice legislation.

The slack, in essence, has been cut from the state’s juvenile justice system. The number of 17-year-olds and younger teens who will end up behind bars in the adult prison system will jump from about 90 today to 270 in a few years.

Other teen criminals who remain in the juvenile detention system will see their incarceration time almost double, from eight weeks to 15 weeks.

Facilities to support these divergent pathways for our next generation don’t come cheap.

Washington State University, for example, received about $37 million more for buildings on its Pullman campus to be built during the next two years. The University of Washington got $110 million more.

And the delinquents? Well, in the same legislative budget the Department of Corrections receives about $170 million more for new prisons.

Society may well benefit from the growth in our university and college enrollment. There seems little chance that the growth in prisons and teen criminals has an upside.

A third pathway desperately needs to be discovered. To his credit, Sheahan recognized this need even as he toughened up the juvenile sentencing laws.

“Most kids, if you can get to them early enough, can get straightened out,” he said. “That’s why we are trying to get to the youngest offenders at their very first offense and give the judges and prosecutors some options. The judge can send a kid to jail, can make a kid pay a fine, do community service or go into a chemical dependency program. Our hope is that with these different options and combinations that the judge and prosecutor can put together a rehab/punishment model to fit the kid.”

But it’s not the whole answer.

As Sheahan acknowledges, many of the young people who get into trouble are coming from homes where the parents themselves have drug or alcohol problems, or other crises.

How did the legislature try to cope with this reality? Another committee increased the funding for foster parents by $26 million.

It’s a start, but there is still some important path-building to be done.

, DataTimes MEMO: Chris Peck is the editor of The Spokesman-Review. His column appears each Sunday on Perspective.

Chris Peck is the editor of The Spokesman-Review. His column appears each Sunday on Perspective.

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