Op-Ed: We Must Make the Justice System Impervious to Bias

After King County announced phase one of its plan to reduce racial disproportionally within its juvenile justice system last week, King County Executive Dow Constantine wrote a letter to the Emerald’s editorial board outlining the County’s intentions for doing so.

by Dow Constantine, King County Executive

Making the justice system impervious to the (mostly unacknowledged but nevertheless real) biases of, well, everyone in society, is a tall order. But we have to approach it as achievable. That’s what King County presented last week in our announcement.

Wringing all the bias from the societal conditions and institutions that precede a child’s first contact with the police is considerably more difficult, but perhaps even more important: Investing in every person to make sure they are born healthy; that they get ample emotional and intellectual engagement from parents or other caregivers, as science shows they must for their infant brains to grow well; that all are screened for emergent mental, cognitive, emotional, and physical challenges, and that those challenges are addressed immediately, when their impacts can be dramatically reduced; that all receive high quality education from pre-school through college, and that the inevitable challenges of growing up are met with caring and strong supports rather than castigation and abandonment; that ample opportunity exists to live a productive (economically or otherwise) and fulfilling life, and is accessible to all based on drive and creativity and merit, rather than on privilege or position or luck – these are the real solutions to the problems we discussed yesterday. Here is where we must do our best work if we want real change. None of this is in the justice system. The justice system is the place where we struggle to best deal with the bad outcomes attendant to the failure to invest in the physical and social infrastructure that would allow each person to succeed, and allow America to overcome its profoundly troubled history and fulfill its highest ideals.

Here, too, is where one must pursue the (I would submit, utopian) goal of ending incarceration altogether. Until that is possible, we must make detention as humane and productive and rehabilitative – and rare – as possible.