New Juvenile Detention Center Raises Hard Questions

The issue here, over the building of a new juvenile detention center has brought a firestorm of an argument.  (In August 2012, the King County ballot had a levy for a new “Children and Family Justice Center,” which ended up passing by 55.42%.)

It would seem to be a two-fold argument:

1) With the extreme disparities in who ends up in that detention center, are we focusing on the wrong thing?

2) Should there even BE a juvenile detention center?   (To note, the current one - according to everyone who has ever been there, including law enforcement and judges - is a crumbling disaster.)

The Stranger Slog has some good editorials on this issue.

One is by Alex West and James Williams who are arguing against even rebuilding the current one.  This is an argument that has grown in the African-American community. 

Alex West is a member of Washington Incarceration Stops Here. James Williams is a member of Youth Undoing Institutional Racism, and also a member of Ending the Prison Industrial Complex.

They believe the following:

1) We don’t need 154 jail cells for youth.
2) The current jail targets youth of color.
3) People should not have to get arrested or go before a court to get social services.
4) The new jail will continue to be harmful to youth.
5) The youth jail building project contributes to gentrification.
6) There are alternatives to caging youth.
7)Building a new jail and courts is not inevitable.

These are some good starting points for discussion for what the center should be doing (not just incarcerating youth).

I think there are some real and valid concerns here but unfortunately, Mr. West and Mr. Williams, in their editorial, repeatedly pitch this as a white against black issue.  I don't believe that is going to unify people to work towards a solution. 

They also say this:

For the rare case in which a young person has engaged in a serious act of harm toward another, the proper response is to seek healing and reconciliation, not punishment.  

I think that there are cases where any young person who commits "a serious act of harm" against another person - no matter their color - needs to be detained.  

Judge Susan Craighead had two editorials - one at the Slog and the other thru the KC Bar Bulletin.

Susan Craighead is the presiding judge for King County Superior Court. She delivered these remarks at the court’s annual Tribute to Justice Thurgood Marshall, held on Thursday, February 12, 2015. 
Her op-ed at the Slog is frank.

On behalf of King County Superior Court, today I come to you with a bold statement the likes of which you do not often hear from government. We are sorry we have not been listening well enough to our community. Some people are shouting at us because they do not feel they are being heard. Many other people in our community may not be shouting, but they may perceive the county as tone-deaf. We must sit down with them and listen. And we need to speak frankly about the institutional racism and racial disparity that persist in our juvenile justice system.

Her sobering stats:

In 2014 in King County, for the first time, the number of referrals for African American youth exceeded the number of referrals for white youth. More than half the cases in King County Juvenile Court were filed against African American youth, while they make up just under 10 percent of the population.


No judge wants to place a young person in detention. We know that detention can increase recidivism and the chances of failure in school. This is why we try to reserve detention for those who are accused of serious offenses and for whom there are no realistic alternatives. And too often judges find they have no realistic alternatives

We have been challenged to envision a world where there is no need to incarcerate youth at all. As much as we wish we could, we cannot implode juvenile detention tomorrow with no alternatives in place, especially for youth who cannot be released to their parents or guardians. Mothers, fathers, faith leaders, educators, and community workers need to suggest to us community-based and other alternatives to detention that can work and be accepted by the people of King County. 

Today we announce we are immediately embarking on a series of listening sessions with the families we serve, with the leaders in our community, and with a broad swath of community organizations throughout the county. 

(Info is not yet available on these "listening sessions".)

Her op-ed at the King County Bar Bulletin is also frank but somewhat different:

This month I am mounting my soapbox to call attention to a cancer growing on the City of Seattle's body politic. The movement opposing construction of the Children and Family Justice Center is growing, especially in the wake of Ferguson. Its leaders are utilizing tactics calculated to intimidate anyone with a contrary view - be they neighbors who want to replace the existing eyesore or city councilmembers facing their first district re-election bids.

Those of us who worked to get the ballot measure passed - the KCBA helped lead the charge - need to reach out and assure members of the City Council that we will stand with them as they heed the will of the majority of voters, rather than fulfill the demands of a vocal group of 200 to 500 opponents.

She points out that KC has made efforts and strides in reducing juvenile incarceration:

We were successful in driving down the absolute numbers of youth in detention - from well over 200 in the 1990s to just 42 yesterday. This is one of the lowest rates of incarceration of youth of any large urban jurisdiction in the country. While this means fewer youth of color are incarcerated, those youth who are in detention are disproportionately youth of color (more than 40 percent are African American, compared to 6 percent of King County's population).

She is right about City Council district elections and the influence of district issues.   It will be interesting to see what role those issues play in who gets elected and why.


Catherine said…
So... the 17yo who broke into our home twice and stole over $5k of items, stole my husband's identity, who prior to that already had 12 convictions for assault, intimidation, theft, and burglary, should be where exactly?

Can we do better rehabilitating all offenders? yup. Do we need a more evenhanded system? Yup. But where should this happen if clearly it's not happening at home (this kid had spent less than a week in detention prior to he convictions in crimes against us)? I'm open to ideas, but building nothing, when this building has the court rooms, the service offices, etc, not just cells. I don't see building nothing as an option.
Anonymous said…
As someone who advocates for students with disabilities I can tell you failing to serve these kids with early educational intervention leads to prison.

There are 2-3 very comprehensive studies done on dyslexia and the path to prison. Look at this book:
Crime and Dyslexia: A Social Model Approach Paperback – April 8, 2010

These kids don't start out that way.

Anonymous said…
The name "Children and Family Justice Center" makes it sound like a place that helps children and families, but in reality it a place that will harm them while making money for the county and private companies.

Here's what is coming:

help us
Catherine said…
@ Michael..... I have long said, dropouts and 'problem children' are created YEARS before the problem manifests itself.

@help us I get that there can be (is) corruption in the system... but *what* and *where* is the option? I don't think that providing no "place" is an option.
Josh Hayes said…
Catherine, I think that was Judge Craighead's point: it's fine to say that this is not the appropriate solution, but you also have to come with ideas, not just "no". What IS the solution, then?

I don't pretend to have one, but I will say that there are kids in "juvie" who don't belong there, kids who've gone a bit astray and have done relatively minor things and could be counseled out of that, and taught to be better. There are also, of course, some kids who are deep, deep into bad stuff and the way we approach dealing with them should be fundamentally different. I think this calls less for facilities, and more for the ability to determine which kids need what resources.
So Josh, maybe the center should be less detention and more services. That would make sense.
Catherine said…
What's the split of the services space vs detention space in the old? in the new plan? When I was there testifying, I was on 3 floors of the building, no detention space at all. I saw victim's services, meeting rooms, court rooms, counseling services, and what appeared to be offices for various staffers.

Anonymous said…
Detention of offenders is often indicated, the question is what is provided during that detention. "Correctional"facility,"penitentiary"; just hollow words for the most part.
Youth jails are a right of passage for certain kids, a place to meet real gang members and learn stuff. A place to learn about real prison and how to deal with it, because everyone in the system knows they'll be back.
If there was real help in jail for these kids, I'd say lock 'em until they're ready to be on a new path. But all it is is trying to scare them and it doesn't work, it just keeps the customers coming into the prison industry forever.

Put the money into the school district and make these kids do study hall and learn how they're just tools getting scapegoated and railroaded and if they had any sense they'd quit being criminals.


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