Redefining Justice, Restoring Hope, and Realizing Potential in the South End

By James Akbar Williams

On the evening of Wednesday August 19th, many in the South End will come together at Urban Impact for a Town Hall focused on Restorative Justice. I’ll be there, because I want to learn more about Restorative Justice and how it might be used to transform education and juvenile justice. I’ll be there because I understand that there should be more community-led alternatives to detention programs. I’m going because I want to be part of creating holistic and anti-racist solutions in education and juvenile justice. I’ll be there because the school-to-prison pipeline is real and needs to be dismantled.

When I was attending middle school in rural Michigan, one of my teammates who went by the nickname “Boo” was arrested after our 7th-grade basketball game. He was charged with being the accomplice to an armed robbery. He had been with his two older brothers when they robbed a video store and kidnapped the clerk. As punishment, “Boo” was sentenced to about four years in a maximum security juvenile prison. He came home when I was in 11th grade. I remember he had a short fuse when he came back. He didn’t smile as much. I heard a lot of stories about his temper, about him snapping on people for little things at parties and things like that. After just a few months out, “Boo” was arrested for murder. Allegedly, he killed a white woman in her twenties over a two-hundred-dollar drug debt. I knew him when he went in the first time, and I knew him after he came home. I saw the change. Being locked up did nothing to help him work through whatever he was going through or prepare “Boo” for success later in life. There are too many stories similar to this.

I moved to Seattle in 2011. By summer of 2013, I was mentoring for the youth group, Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR). Through those weekly meetings I became aware of King County’s plan to spend 210 million dollars on a state-of-the-art, tricked-out New Youth Jail and Juvenile Court Complex. Also, I learned about a multi-generational group called Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) who was leading the campaign pushing King County to redirect funds toward community-led prevention and alternatives to detention models. I attended several No New Youth Jail meetings and became part of EPIC. I was both honored and humbled in this capacity to work alongside and receive advice from wise and experienced community organizers like Dustin Washington, Mary Flowers, Dawn Mason, and Aaron Dixon. At the same time, I have been inspired and pushed to keep up with young leaders doing powerful work like Rashuad Johnson, Ardo Hersi, Devan Rodgers, Khalil Young-Butler, Andrea Lopez-Diaz, and many more. I have learned so much from everyone.

The No New Youth Jail Campaign led rallies, marches, and speak-outs. We delivered sign on letters, conducted silent protests and held prayer vigils in County Council Chambers. A lot of people came together to creatively oppose the building of the New Youth Jail. We delayed the process, shrunk the number of cells, and have sparked some rich conversation about how the county needs to move away from jailing juveniles. We influenced the County Executive’s declaration that the County should move forward with the goal of one day achieving Zero Detention for Juveniles. All of that happened and all of that is good. But to this point, we have not stopped the jail. Some additional Equity and Racial Impact analyses were conducted and made public, the timeline has been delayed, but that project is still moving forward. Over time, our work broadened to trying to stop the Jail and also helping develop and implement Community-Led Alternatives to Detention models.

For the last few months I have been part of a small group of Black Men meeting regularly to talk about bringing Restorative Justice to Rainier Beach. More specifically, we have been looking at ways of transforming education and juvenile justice systems through use of restorative principles. From those meetings, I learned that Rainier Beach has a rich history of working collectively to design and implement community-led alternative to detention programs. One of those programs was Clean Dreams, a pilot program implemented around 2006 with the goal of transitioning individuals stuck in the vicious cycle of low-level crime to a place where they are out of that life and helping build a healthy and thriving larger community. Around 2010, when the founding organization dissolved, Clean Dreams transitioned to POCAAN and became Communities Uniting Rainier Beach (CURB). In 2013 Rainier Beach was a recipient of a Department of Justice Byrne Criminal Justice Innovations grant that uses a “hot spot” research based methodology. Rainier Beach’s A Beautiful Safe Place for Youth is the initiative developed by the neighborhood where youth, business and neighborhood engagement interventions will occur. The Rainier Beach community remains unified and continues to demand radical change to the current justice and education systems. In March and May of 2015, residents identified Restorative Justice as a solution to the traditional system of criminal justice. Efforts continue to research models in other places and develop a community-led alternative to detention pilot based on the restorative principles.

Ending Prison Industrial Complex and Rainier Beach Action Coalition are working together to organize a Restorative Justice Town Hall on August 19th. The agenda for that meeting will include background on sponsoring organizations, Restorative Justice definitions and historical context and examples of programs utilizing restorative principles operating in King County right now. I don’t know everything about restorative justice, but I know enough to know I like it. I know enough to know I need to learn more. I know enough to recognize it is a component of the solution.

I’ll be at the Town Hall on August 19th because with this current system, I see too many young people who look like me making mistakes that cost them years of their life. I’m going because the racial disparities keep getting greater and greater, and that means the Youth Jail keeps getting blacker and blacker. I’m going because the racial disparities in school discipline are so gross that the Federal Department of Justice began an investigation of Seattle Public Schools in 2013. I’m going because I believe there are better ways to practice disciplining our children than just sending them to detention, suspending, or expelling them. I’m going because I want to be part of creating holistic and anti-racist solutions.  Again, I’ll be there because I want to learn more about Restorative Justice and how it might be used to transform School Discipline and Juvenile Justice in a place like King County.

For similar reasons, we hope to see many of you there too.

11 thoughts on “Redefining Justice, Restoring Hope, and Realizing Potential in the South End”

  1. Thoughts: This month the president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the most important entity outside of the government researching and guiding the country to juvenile detention reform, gave a TedTalk. He unequivocally and unambiguously called for the permanent and complete closure of all youth detention centers in America. This NGO has been the mentor of King County with respect to reform since 2004. King Co. and five other Washington counties have been seriously engaged since 2007 in creating a reliable way of collecting juvie detention data through the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. When Casey turns around and says “Not enough.” Only shutting them all down across the country is good enough. They are all harming children. That is the signal and we should be running with that. We can call for the complete shutdown now. Neither the county nor the state have a moral leg to stand on now. They must close them of be accused of harming children. There are alternatives. Both evidence-based and those that are “reasonable” and being studied. Don’t put up with excuses.
    Love to you all.

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  2. Pointing out that the current system does not get the outcomes desired and may make things worse is valuable in that it forces a look for alternatives.

    Exploring alternatives is good. But where is the evidence that they work or at least work better than what we do now? This piece and others like it have not presented evidence to show that the proposed alternatives bet better outcomes in terms of recidivism.

    There may be programs that do that. I’m all for them if we can find them, even if they are more expensive up front, because we get it back if recidivism is reduced. Most importantly, the offenders can get back on track toward their full human potential.

    Assuming that there are programs that do that, it seems the offender will need to embrace it for it to work. What happens if they don’t do what the restorative program requires of participants? Then you are back to incarcerating them for failure to meet the terms and conditions of the restorative program.

    The Emerald keeps publishing pieces by folks talking generally about restorative justice. Surely after all the meetings, they have identified evidence based practices that are shown to have worked? When they talk specifically about alternative programs, with studies and statistics to show a given model works better than what we do now (not a high bar to clear), then we will be getting somewhere. When are we going to be seeing a piece citing evidence? Hope is not a viable plan.

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    1. In answer to your question about where are the evidence-based alternatives, there was a book written by Jerome G. Miller called “Last One Over the Wall”. You can buy a used one off the web. In 1971 he provided our best to date example of how to shut down all juvenile detention centers in Massachusetts. In addition to that example, the University of Washington is charged by the state legislator in a joint effort with the Washington State Institution for Public Policy to, each year, survey all the state alternative programs to determine which are working, i.e. are evidence-based. One such investigator is Sarah Cusman-Walker at the UW. In addition, Missouri has the model for a system that centers on rehabilitation instead of ours which is centered on punishment and hardly can be called rehabilitative. Missouri’s model is considered the “gold standard” by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, but now even Casey says detention centers are too harmful to exist. Multinomah County beside Portland has another model that is new, but deemed much better than King County. They provide tours monthly with arrangements ahead of time. I agree with you if you are saying “Show me.” It can be shown. It just isn’t happening here.

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  3. Mr. Williams,

    How about an article on Washington State Restorative Justice Reforms similar in structure to the one that follows on No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

    It notes, in the closing paragraphs, the reforms that NCLB lead to that were studied, and then calls out the four that were proven to get results.

    http://www.vox.com/2015/7/27/9045491/no-child-left-behind-accountability

    We should only implement reforms that are evidence placed practices (EBP) that work.

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    1. “Evidence-based”. – The use of “evidence-based’ programs is, indeed, preferred by the legislator and the public. Rehabilitation of juveniles accused of committing crimes has not enjoyed the popularity that punishing them has had in this country. We definitely have some examples of rehabilitation that have worked. Research to ascertain the comparative values of worth is not itself a perfect art, but good examples we can use exist. There needs to be a great shift in values. Where the mind-set has been punishment is the answer, the switch is going to be uphill. Something that needs to change is the public consensus around the use of punishment as the all-around go-to answer to problems. While the incarceration situation is getting changed, equally important is providing the public with evidence-based reasons for replacing its punitive headset with what was there and growing, even among Republicans, an actual semi-compassionate trend in thinking. There was an actual time when the prevailing thought was that things were going so well that eventually we would not need detention. That was before the drug war. If we want to repair what has been broken and construct a new system, we will need to start with educating ourselves. I’m encouraged and elated that the your and their social media have begun that among themselves, certainly without the aid of corporate media or the institutions still supporting the punishment answer.

      And, by the way, I would hope we can also encourage innovation. Not all the best alternatives have yet been discovered.

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      1. Then stop writing articles that say, “Close the Youth Detention Center”. Because, since no specific, evidence-based alternative is offered, the reader reasonably concludes, based on what was written, not what was meant, that the alternative is letting them run free to continue criminal activity that is harmful to the perpetrator and the community.

        Rather write articles that say, “Missouri’s program looks like ______ and does _____, _____ and ______ blank. We do ______ in Washington. Their recidivism rate is _____ and offenders leaving their system typically return to school (or whatever) and succeed at rates 3x (or whatever) than juvenile offenders in our system. There system costs, ____ per juvenile offender, per day on average, but they spend less because their offenders enter the system and leave, re-offending only 10% (or whatever) of the time where ours return 80% of the time and an average length of confinement costing ____. There system is mildly more expensive on the first entry into the system, but costs taxpayers less overall because their offenders don’t have to be incarcerated a 2nd, 3rd, and 4th time” Now you are offering the voter reading your article an alternative that shows they are going to be more secure and save money.

        But that is not the “reactionary, let’s fight in a burning house where we all die,” that are being published here. The article here, poses a lose, lose to the reader. Close down involuntary juvenile confinement so they can return to crime with impunity at risk to them, their victims, and the community at large.

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  4. Our prison system is seriously broken .. people should be incarcerated and “contained” so they can learn to heal and learn how they should act/participate in community .. Sadly all our current system subject them too is more reason to hate, creates additional anger and it strengthens criminal behavior .. you doubt what I say .. I am willing to share the stories !

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  5. What is something preventing the abolition of detention? A thought: “Because the world of the marginalized is inevitably fraught with moral assumptions, the clientele being served by human service agencies are immersed in a Harry Potter-like venue where dramas of right and wrong, power and weakness, greed and largesse, pain and suffering, compassion and retribution are paraded daily before the public. It is a stark world of contrast in which subtlety has little salience. In this sense, it is much in tune with an electronic media desperately seeking ratings.
    Child welfare, correctional, and mental health agencies must fulfill politico-mythological roles that go well beyond their stated purposes (e.g. addressing child abuse, preventing delinquency and crime, or bolstering mental stability.)
    While these agencies may be publicly encouraged to be effective, they must simultaneously buttress whatever prevailing myths may surround their clientele – whether or not these comport with reality.
    As a consequence, whether a child welfare agency deals well with a specific incident of alleged abuse, a mental health agency treats a mental patient decently, a juvenile justice agency leads a youth toward a law-abiding life, or a prison deters an adult offender from further crime are all essentially beside the point.
    While it may be laudable if these goals can be accomplished, they are less crucial to the agency’s survival than whether its practices buttress the political ideologies, biases or prevailing public distortions that might be hyped regarding their target populations. As a result, they are largely in the business of labeling individuals for quick and easy disposal – updating the nomenclature to keep current with the political demands of the times. Possessing the power to make ultimately hurtful labels stick while offering “help” is what keeps these agencies in business. Their “successes” have largely to do with negotiating this slippery slope.
    It’s one reason why failed agencies trundle on from decade to decade. While they may fail their clientele – they are in fact, highly successful at more publicly valued tasks.” – Dr. Jerome G. Miller, 2013
    He abolished juvenile detention in the state of Massachusetts in the early 70’s and it stuck for years.

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