‘Stuff I’ve never seen’: Searching for solutions as teen crime soars across Washington

Police are warning that teen crimes are on the rise, as multiple agencies say they’ve noticed the uptick – and that these crimes are getting more severe.

Just in the past few months, KIRO 7 has covered arsons, hit and runs, burglaries, plus a torrent of stolen cars. It’s not just the crimes themselves that stand out – it’s the ages of the suspects.

The teens accused of burning Gault Middle School in Tacoma were 15 years old. The teen suspect behind the Ostrom Mushroom Farm in Lacey last year was a 12-year-old girl. Another 12-year-old girl in Tukwila was accused of assaulting elderly victims and robbing them. Those are just a few of the recent offenses committed by shockingly young suspects.

“A lot of the kids stuff that I’m seeing is stuff that I’ve never seen before in my career,” said Sgt. Darren Moss with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department.

“We are seeing an uptick in gang violence in Snohomish County involving juveniles specifically,” said then-Sheriff Adam Fortney last fall.

And there’s a sense that here in Washington that there are no consequences for teen criminals. After all, victims keep saying the same things.

“I just think it’s insane there’s no repercussions for these kids,” said Danielle, who was Tased outside a Tacoma Winco during a robbery attempt in November.

“These kids aren’t getting no time,” said Ryan Johnson, the owner of an Everett cannabis shop that was targeted in a smash and grab attempt in January.

No ages were available for the suspects, but Johnson said they looked young.

One Lakewood mom who had her Kia stolen from a Safeway parking lot said she had a hard time working with police.

“I kept being told they’re minors, we can’t do anything,” said Kennedy Grenier. “I felt so frustrated.”

Even police feel a sense of helplessness.

“What can an officer do when you’re talking about a kid committing a property crime?” we asked.

“Yeah, not much,” said Sgt. Charles Porche with Lakewood PD back in September regarding the stolen Kia case.

Digging into data

KIRO 7 pulled data from a decade of reports from the Washington State Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WSASPC). It shows between 2021 and 2022, juvenile arrests went from 4,625 to 6,234 arrests – that’s an uptick of about 35%. Before that uptick, teen arrests were actually on the decline for more than 10 years, with a particularly steep drop during the pandemic.

Juvenile arrest data for 2023 won’t be available until July, although KIRO7 covered even more stories involving teens and crimes in 2023 than the year before.

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department says what’s particularly disturbing is that the crimes are escalating.

“When you and I were younger, we weren’t stealing cars,” Moss said. “The means of stealing a car, ramming it through a business, or shooting at people, or holding people at gunpoint, that’s something that’s brand new.”

So how serious is this problem?

“It is probably the worst that I’ve seen for Pierce County, basically, the whole western region of the state,” Moss said.

What’s being done

As for the consequences kids are facing for these crimes, we went to a couple teen felony sentencings in January to find out.

A teen girl pleaded guilty to robbery in the second degree, for being part of an armed robbery of a pizza delivery driver in Puyallup in November. She was 15 years old at the time. Her friend was holding the gun.

“I do understand that what I did was wrong, and I felt I shouldn’t have done it,” the now-16-year-old girl said in court.

She was sentenced to 30 hours of community service, supervision, and a written letter of apology. She was also under home electronic monitoring while waiting for the sentencing.

“Part of what gets taken into consideration for juvenile justice is that a juvenile’s mind is under-developed,” said Pierce County Superior Court Judge Sabrina M. Ahrens.

In a sentencing case out of King County, KIRO 7 watched a 14-year-old boy twirling in his chair. The teen pleaded guilty to stealing a car in Enumclaw.

“There are definitely a lot of concerns about (the 14-year-old’s) behavior in the Enumclaw community,” said his juvenile probation counselor Michelle Higa.

She said he basically stopped attending school in 7th grade, and prosecutors said he’s had run-ins with the law since he was 12.

“You’re 14 years old -- however, you’re developing a criminal history that’s more common for someone older than you,” King County Superior Court Judge Nelson K.H. Lee said. “The goal here is to stop you from reoffending and committing the same old things over and over again.”

The teen boy was sentenced to 25 hours of community service, supervision, and 20 days of electronic home monitoring. That sentencing was after he spent a few days in detention while waiting for the hearing. Lee agreed to requests from the family for the 20-day sentence to be served at home so that the boy could go to school.

“If you step out of line even a little bit, if your toe crosses the line, I can bring you right back to secure detention,” Lee said.

KIRO 7 spoke with the teen’s mother after the sentencing off camera. Even she expressed that harsher penalties for some of her son’s earlier crimes might’ve prevented their family from getting to this point.

“Where’s the consequence?”

We also took all of these concerns to the King County Department of Public Defense.

“There’s this public outcry of, ‘we don’t feel safe and we feel like something needs to happen,’” we asked. “What’s your response?”

“What the data says is that the juvenile legal system, when a young person is involved in that system, they tend to have more involvement with it, they get ensnared,” said King County Department of Public Defense Director Anita Khandelwal.

Data from the Washington State Center for Court Research says about half of Washington kids released from juvenile rehabilitation end up committing another crime. And about a third of them commit that crime within a year of being released.

“Young people are really influenced by their peers, and if you put a bunch of peers together who are having a lot of challenges and they influence each other’s behavior, that’s not a good outcome,” Khandelwal said. “The idea that we’re going to arrest a kid, put him in a cell, and hope that is somehow going to scare them straight -- there’s no evidence that says it’s going to happen.”

Study after study shows what works. That includes methods like pairing the kid with a mentor or a case manager to address basic needs like housing, and things like aggression therapy.

“I get that visceral like, ‘oh, you know, where’s the consequence?’” Khandelwal. “I’m talking about a world where consequences look different… one that forces the young person to actually sort of deal with the behaviors, and the challenges they’re experiencing that led to led to the incident in the first place.”

“How hard is it to try to get people to think about this in a different way?” we asked.

Khandelwal laughed. Then after a pause said, “Well, I think, conversations like this are a really important first step.”

Sergeant Moss and Khandelwal point out the majority of violent crime occurs in the poorest areas. It’s something supported by a KIRO 7 investigation into where crime happens in your neighborhood.

“It’s just like a triple hit because it’s already a suffering area,” Moss said. “Now their kids are the ones that are committing the crimes and they’re committing the crimes in the same neighborhood that they grew up.”

“They are disproportionately poor, they are disproportionately people of color,” Khandelwal said.

The solution is not easy, but everyone KIRO 7 spoke with agrees – the current status quo is unacceptable.

“We can’t just let this happen – it’s not OK,” Grenier said.

“We were never this way before, it’s really hurtful to see this crime with young kids,” Moss said. “People want things to get better and people want to feel safe.”