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Building Boats and Brighter Futures

A program giving justice-involved young people a chance to learn boating skills, woodworking and other crafts has helped to reduce youth incarceration by more than 90% in Pierce County, Wash.

By Kate Bryan  |  November 7, 2023

Over 700,000 youth were adjudicated delinquent in 2019. An adjudication is a court judgment or decision regarding whether a youth was legally responsible for an offense. It’s the juvenile equivalent of a criminal conviction.

In over half of the 2019 cases, the young person was placed on probation.

Probation has long been the most common disposition for justice-involved youth. In many jurisdictions, juvenile probation has been operated on a surveillance model similar to the adult system, where individuals are allowed to remain in the community under certain conditions, such as observing a curfew, completing drug tests or performing community service, with strict supervision and punishment for noncompliance.

“Using mentorship and creative hands-on craftsmanship experiences produce positive results. It was great to witness this being done in an excellent way in the Tacoma Boat Builders program.”

—Sen. Diane Larson, North Dakota

Some justice system stakeholders want to transform that system from one that punishes noncompliance to one that incentivizes success.

In September, 15 legislators and one legislative staff member from 12 states traveled to Pierce County, Wash., which includes Tacoma, to learn about innovative strategies to remake juvenile probation.

“In the early 2000s, no one was doing reform. It was a bold move,” says Kevin Williams, probation program manager with the Pierce County Juvenile Court.

While Pierce County is recognized nationally for its incentive-based probation model, it was not until 2015 that the county modified its approach to youth community supervision. Williams cited the importance of incorporating the science of adolescent brain development into the county’s revised approach to probation—specifically, research demonstrating that young people respond better to rewards for positive behavior than to penalties for misconduct.

The new model was also designed to incorporate the interests of the youth it was serving. “When we talked to young people, they said they wanted to learn arts, culinary skills, get outside,” Williams says. In Pierce County, young people on probation connect with a variety of community partners that foster new skills and engage them with peers and positive mentors.

Once such partner is Tacoma Boat Builders, a nonprofit program that offers a space where justice-involved youth can learn boating skills, woodworking and other crafts. Meeting attendees heard from program facilitators, toured the workshop, and stood on the dock where finished boats are launched into the Thea Foss Waterway, an inlet near downtown Tacoma.

“We build and sail wooden boats with the youth of Pierce County,” says Shannon Shea, the program’s executive director. “It was started in order to serve the youth who were referred to us through the Pierce County juvenile courts, and that is the principal population that we serve.”

Young people receive one-on-one mentorship, and participation in the program can help fulfill their terms of supervision. Since its inception in 2014, Tacoma Boat Builders has served more than 1,480 justice-involved youth.

“We all know that juveniles have better outcomes from intentional positive reinforcement along with accountability,” says North Dakota Sen. Diane Larson (R). “Using mentorship and creative hands-on craftsmanship experiences produce positive results. It was great to witness this being done in an excellent way in the Tacoma Boat Builders program.”

From 2000 to 2022, youth incarceration has decreased by 90.5% in Pierce County.

The federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention endorses juvenile probation and reentry community supervision programs that include tailored, youth- and family-centered supervision plans; achievable goals that support young people’s ability to complete any conditions included in the supervision order; and connection with prosocial activities and adults in the community.

For more information about juvenile probation, see The Principles of Effective Juvenile Justice Policy.

Kate Bryan is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Civil and Criminal Justice Program.

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