“Let the Youth Prison Crumble to Dust”: An Open Letter to Mike O’Brien

Editor’s Note: This letter was written by the author in response to the pending construction of the King County Children and Family Justice Center building that many in the  south Seattle community have deemed a “youth prison.” The Seattle City Council will be convening at City Hall Monday at 2:00pm to vote on allowing amendments to the City’s current land use codes that will aid in the development of the building. Councilmember O’Brien’s reply follows the letter

Dear Councilmember O’Brien,

I was at the hearing two weeks ago on the zoning issues regarding the new juvenile justice center.  I supported and campaigned for you in the last city council election, in no small part due to your courageous stand regarding the tunnel. While some thought it was grandstanding, I viewed your position as genuine conviction and imagination.

Have you to considered the similarity of the tunnel and juvenile jail situations?

The tunnel was approved by an electorate who saw a piece of crumbling infrastructure, and decided to upgrade it. You were convicted that the car-centric, carbon-reliant solutions were fundamentally flawed, and you called on us to have greater imagination. You worked to fight the tunnel at every turn, even in settings that were not intended to be referendums on the tunnel (specifically) or fossil fuel-based economics (generally).

Consider now the new youth jail.  If anything this vote is less of an honest reflection of the will of the people than the tunnel was.  A cursory read of the ballot initiative for the jail demonstrates that the language was obfuscating– it was described as a juvenile justice center for social services, and hardly mentioned the fact that is primarily a jail. Regardless of that reality, people saw a crumbling building and were told there was no option but to replace it.

I say let the youth prison crumble to dust and be eradicated from memory.  Rather than replace a jail for children (which you surely know has housed black and brown children in outrageously disproportionate numbers) with a sturdier version of the same monstrosity, please issue a call for us to envision better solutions.  The country of New Zealand, provinces in Canada, schools in Oakland, and municipalities around the world have replaced incarceration-based juvenile justice systems with restoration-based juvenile justice systems, and done so with incredible success.

Big Bertha sits in a money pit, and eventually will enable the release of huge amounts of carbon in the name of convenience.  At least you stood against it.  Can we count on you to make as courageous a stand for the sake of our youth as you did for the sake of our environment?

Thank you,

Rev. John Helmiere

Valley & Mountain Fellowship

5623 Rainier Avenue South

Seattle, WA 98118

Councilmember O’Brien’s Response:

While I am planning to support this land use change King County is requesting, I do not support the disproportionate arrest, sentencing and detention of youth of color.  I have tried to use this land use code change to leverage an opening for concerned communities to get a seat at the table with the County—including many young people of color who will be most impacted by this new facility and who have largely been left out of the conversation to date.

I understand I am letting those same communities down by supporting this land use change, but my support for it is resulting in positive, constructive steps with the County that they were not considering even one month ago. The County is committed to conducting a racial impact analysis and is committing that the findings of that analysis will influence the design and programming that happens at the new facility.

Through this process, I am also committing the City and myself personally to be actively engaged in the racial impact analysis, including looking at specific actions that the City can take to reduce the racial disparities for youth in the criminal justice system.

City of Seattle Councilmember Mike O’Brien

Featured Image Alex Garland

One thought on ““Let the Youth Prison Crumble to Dust”: An Open Letter to Mike O’Brien”

  1. The reason that Rev. Helmiere and his coalition members aren’t getting traction is that they have yet to offer a credible alternative. He admits as much. “… issue a call for us to envision better solutions.” He doesn’t offer a better (or any) solution other than to suggest that others have them. My neighbor has a Cadillac. That statement does not mean that this is a better mode of transportation then the car I have, or that if it is, that I can attain it.

    Can we reduce juvenile incarceration? Yes. Should we? Yes. But we can’t eliminate it. Why? Because even juveniles can and do make choices. We would all want them to engage in something more constructive for their welfare than just being warehoused in a cell for a period of time. We would want them to engage in constructive alternatives to their own incarceration like some sort of work to restore and repay property damage they have done that makes the victims somewhat whole, while providing lessons in delayed gratification to the youth and learning basic life and job skills. But what if those things are offered and the kid says “hell no!”?

    More broadly, it can be cheaper for society, and better for the offender, to invest in social services, drug treatment, mental health, intensive case management (both for the juvenile offender and the household) than in incarceration. It can make us more secure than incarceration because it lowers the risk of re-offense.

    We should explore those things, but that is not what the Reverend is calling for. He tells us what he and his coalition are against and want to tear down, without offering a constructive, evidence-based, result-oriented, alternative for us to join him and his coalition in supporting.

    They would be far more effective if they came up with a list of evidence-based alternatives to incarceration and changed state laws to offer those to juvenile offenders. But that is not what is on offer here. Tear down the juvenile incarceration center and juveniles will stop committing crime is what he is saying. That is not credible and he and his coalition are marginalized, on a vitally important topic that nobody else is raising.