Op-Ed: A Shared Vision to End Youth Incarceration

We are an alliance of legal organizations. We stand in unique positions as groups that aid clients in navigating the legal system and groups that advocate to make that system more just. As members of the legal community in King County, we must be accountable for our roles in a justice system that we know often adversely and disproportionately affects communities of color and low-income people. Accountability requires us to pay attention to the concerns raised by communities most impacted, dive deeper into issues, and course correct where necessary.  

We believe that lawyers and legal professionals should strive to be inclusive and supportive of the individuals and communities that we serve. We believe that juvenile justice-involved youth and families are in the best position to both speak about their lived experience and identify pathways to more successful outcomes; but we have observed that the voices of those most affected are often absent or discounted when policies are developed and resources allocated.

We stand in solidarity with and strongly support the call from community members urging King County to look more critically at our current juvenile justice system and invest in community-based alternatives to reduce and ultimately eliminate the use of youth incarceration. This vision is not radical; it is essential.

On most days this past year, we had no more than 60 children in our county juvenile detention center. On some days we had as few as 45 children. This number represents a great reduction from the hundreds of children held in detention each day during the 1990s. This reduced population in detention is made up of youth held for a variety of reasons and at different stages of the juvenile court process. In 2014, only 17% of the total number of detention admissions were for violent offenses.

Yet, as our county has succeeded in reducing the overall number of children in detention, disproportionality of youth of color who are detained has increased, suggesting that success has been uneven. Though only 10% of the King County juvenile population is black, in 2013, 43% of the youth in detention were black. In 2014, the number increased to 51%. In addition to racial disproportionality, we also see in our youth jail an over representation of youth with mental illness, disabilities, those living in poverty, those who have been in the child welfare system, and those who have been impacted by trauma. While we applaud the efforts that reduced the absolute numbers of detained youth, our failure to reduce such disparities demands a fundamentally different strategy.

The detention of our youth is not an inevitable, necessary evil. Contrary to what is often assumed, what frequently distinguishes the youth who sit in detention for weeks or months from the youth who are released back to their families and communities is not the severity of the crime, but the resources of their families and their access to the healthcare and community programs that keep them safe and supported. All youth, even those charged with violent crimes, need appropriate and specialized support and interventions as detention will not address the root cause of why these young people are acting or responding with violence.

We encourage the county to be guided by the research that demonstrates how youth detention isolates children when they most need support. We urge the county to invest in family- and community- driven solutions. We support change and innovation in our legal system and an end to systemic racism in our justice system. Together we can create a community that prioritizes and invests in restorative, individualized, and developmentally appropriate strategies to respond to youth behavior and eliminate the need for the continued detention of youth.



Columbia Legal Services

Legal Counsel for Youth and Children

Public Defender Association

Northwest Immigrant Rights Project

Incarcerated Mothers Advocacy Project

Street Youth Legal Advocates of Washington (SYLAW)

Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality, Seattle University School of Law*

Access to Justice Institute, Seattle University School of Law*

* The Korematsu Center and Access to Justice Institute do not represent the official views of Seattle University.








6 thoughts on “Op-Ed: A Shared Vision to End Youth Incarceration”

  1. What the advocates of this approach have yet to do is provide specific, evidence-based, non-custodial solutions that work. What are those community and family driven alternatives? What are the success rates? Are they measurably better or worse than incarceration? Incarceration performs so poorly, it should not be hard to come up with alternatives that outperform it, yet they provide only vague generalities. What happens if it is determined that a youth could be more successful not re-offending if they participated in drug treatment, mental health treatment, and some sort of community service, and they don’t show for those things? Are you not back to incarceration? Answer those questions, and incarceration will die of its own effectiveness. But it isn’t, because the advocates aren’t answering those things. They spend 612 words and don’t offer any specific alternatives to incarceration that measurably demonstrate superior results.

      1. Then why aren’t we seeing an op-ed where the signatories to this op-ed are listing those and advocating for their implementation? Once those program’s are in place and showing lower recidivism rates at lower costs, what do you think the appetite will be to continue to fund the YFC?

  2. I looked at the Casey Report. It is not as you characterize it. It says that while states were relying less on incarceration, juvenile crime actually fell. That juvenile crime may have fallen, across the board for reasons unrelated to the use of incarceration or non-incarceration for supervising and holding juvenile offenders accountable. It does not list specific programs used as substitutes for incarceration and compare recidivism and costs for each side-by-side with offenders with similar offenses.

  3. In the adult context, the LEAD Program was proposed and piloted in Seattle. It was studied to see how participants faired against those that went through the traditional justice system for similar offenses. LEAD showed superior performance.

    DOC and the City of Seattle piloted a program where they much closely supervised offenders in community custody. It too showed superior results to what was normally done and saved money by keeping participants from being re-incarcerated and because they re-offended at lower rates.

    Where is the youth counterpart to these pilot programs? What are the proposals from advocates to create them? Where is the commitment to study them head-to-head against current incarceration tools for those with similar crimes?

    According to these advocates, the current youth incarceration model has a 60% recidivism rate. That means it is only 40% successful. Surely they can come up with a specific, empirically testable, pilot program that they hypothesize will cost lest and be 41% (or better) successful. That is not a high bar to clear. But they spend 600+ words not doing that.