THURSTON COUNTY, WA – Even within our harsh, punishment-focused incarceration system, society recognizes that youth are different from adults, and must be treated differently. Our laws are slowly beginning to acknowledge that the brain is still developing in critical ways until at least the mid-20s, and young people involved in the criminal legal system have a right to protection when it comes to their sentencing.
A 2018 law established that children convicted as adults in Washington should be held in Juvenile Rehabilitation (JR) facilities, which are part of the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF), until the age of 25. The “JR-to-25″ law recognizes that young people need access to education, programming, therapeutic services, a higher degree of safety, and ultimately, a better chance of successful reentry as adults. Yet Green Hill School, a DCYF JR facility in Chehalis, WA, routinely transfers young people from its custody to adult prisons with no warning, process, or opportunity to challenge their transfers.
Diante Pellum was just 14 years old at the time of his arrest, and 19 when he was finally sentenced after years in trial. Under state law, Diante was supposed to serve the first several years of his sentence in a DCYF facility and was sent to DCYF’s Green Hill School. Even though he was doing well at Green Hill, when Diante was involved in an altercation with several other residents, he was transferred to an adult prison operated by the Department of Corrections with no notice, no hearing, and no opportunity to inform his family of the move. After days of not knowing how to reach him, Diante’s grandmother reached out to Columbia Legal Services (CLS) for help.
Investigating Diante’s case revealed numerous other instances of youth being moved to adult prison facilities before the age of 25, with no due process or oversight, in violation of their rights. As a result, on Friday, October 28, 2022, CLS and co-counsel, Nicole McGrath and Daniel Norman, filed a lawsuit in Thurston County against the Department of Children, Youth, and Families on behalf of Diante and all other youth at risk of these unlawful transfers. CLS Attorney Laurel Jones stated, “our goal is not only to ensure that Diante and the other youth who have been unlawfully transferred will be returned to DCYF rehabilitation facilities, but that DCYF will be required to adopt rules and policies consistent with Washington law to ensure that no youth are unjustly transferred to adult prisons in the future.”
Young people who end up in JR custody often have histories of surviving abuse, poverty, trauma, racism, substance use disorder, and/or mental illness. There is little reason for them to believe their safety and well-being will be protected by the authorities in their lives, particularly during incarceration. These transfers take cruel advantage of the likelihood JR residents won’t be able to seek justice for themselves. But we are all deserving of justice, safety, and a fair chance, and CLS will stand alongside Diante and others who have been wrongfully transferred.