Politicians Should Abandon Youth Jail Project as a Year-End Gift to King County’s Children

by Kim Ambrose, Angélica Cházaro & Dean Spade

The City of Seattle, at the request of King County, has an unfortunate gift for struggling families this holiday season: a new youth jail.

Despite increasing community opposition to the project over the last four years, it seems that the City will issue building permits this week to allow the County to proceed with a massive new courthouse and detention center, which will enshrine a system that cages black and brown children at wildly disproportionate rates. With a price tag of $210 million, the message is clear – we prioritize locking children up and processing them through the justice system over providing constitutionally adequate schools, mental health services, affordable housing, or a myriad of other effective means to help children reach their full potential. 

The good news is that fewer youth are being locked up than ever before. In the 1990’s, when the current juvenile detention center was built, as many as 200 children were put in King County’s cells on any given night. In recent weeks, those numbers have fallen to as low as 28 per night. King County’s experience is consistent with a national trend – juvenile arrest rates are at historically low levels.

Still, while arrest and incarceration rates for children have dropped, the racial disparities have increased. Over 80% of the youth held in the King County Youth Detention Center are not white. That should concern every one of us here in the nation’s fifth whitest city.

The striking racial disparities in the juvenile justice system have drawn the attention of officials in King County who have worked over many years to reduce the detention population and identify interventions that will benefit youth and families of color. The 180 Program run by a community-based organization in South Seattle and supported by the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has diverted hundreds of youth from the juvenile justice system. The FIRS (“Family Intervention and Restorative Services”) program offers services to families in crisis and reduces the reliance on secure detention where there is family conflict. Restorative justice practices are also starting to take hold in small numbers, which has potential for transforming the way we address harmful behavior.

In addition, the Seattle City Council, prompted by community activists opposing the construction of the new youth jail, passed a resolution endorsing a vision for “zero use of detention for youth” and allocated funding to support community-based programs to work toward that goal. All of these efforts recognize that putting kids in jail cells and processing them through the justice system destroys lives.

The research confirms what seems intuitive once you visit youth who are in jail: secure detention increases recidivism. Dressing children, ages 10-17, in jail garb and slippers and putting them into cages where they are monitored by armed guards is traumatizing, dehumanizing, disruptive to school and family, and only prepares them for future incarceration. It does not “teach them a lesson” and it does not make us safer. It is a failed intervention and we must end it.

But we will not end youth incarceration if we spend millions on a capital investment that reinforces the failed system and ignores the real needs of youth and their families all over King County.

Investing millions in a courthouse and jail in the Central District does little to address the struggles families face in places like Kent, Federal Way, Burien and White Center. It does not enhance effective community-based programs that work. It does not send a message that schools, families, and communities must be supported and nurtured. By funding the jail while under-funding programs that work, King County is making jailing the program of first resort, and that makes no sense.

Proponents of the building say we voted for this in 2012. First, that ballot campaign framed the new jail and courts in a misleading manner as services for youth and families. Voters certainly were not told that black and brown children make up an overwhelming majority of those jailed. Second, 2016 is not 2012.  In 2012 we could not have known that better and more effective community based alternatives would blossom in our County and result in as few as 28 children in detention. We could not have foreseen how the movement for black lives and the movement against mass incarceration would change our understanding of racist policing and imprisonment.

Given our new realities, we know that a $210 million facility is a shameful use of resources rooted in a damaging and outdated way of thinking about youth and safety. The Mayor, the King County Executive, and the King County Council should abandon this obsolete project. That would be the best gift to our community this holiday season.

Kim Ambrose and Angélica Cházaro are professors at the University of Washington School of Law. Dean Spade is a professor at the Seattle University School of Law. The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors. 

Featured photo is a cc licensed image via Flickr by Dan Lipsitz


3 thoughts on “Politicians Should Abandon Youth Jail Project as a Year-End Gift to King County’s Children”

  1. No new jail! Use the money to fund our schools and repair old jail if needed. We do not want to lock up more youth! We want to support our young people and keep them free.