by Nikkita Oliver and Gyasi Ross
It is true. People harm each other. In our current world this seems an unavoidable inevitability. The certitude of which is frightening for many. This fear often drives the public into the arms of anything that might offer a semblance of protection–like jails or police. Or we just throw money at the problem. This will surely make it go away!
Often the first question asked abolitionists is, “What do we do with people who commit acts of violence such as assault or murder?” The media and politicians sensationalize this question focusing on specific gruesome events to make their point. While this often “wins” out in the court of public opinion, it is really just “fear mongering”. This is not to say the fear is unreal. Rather, it is not the whole picture.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, the frame is worth even more. How we choose to “crop” an issue or frame a question impacts the answer.
So, let’s assume everything is true. Assume some youth will attempt to kill, but also assume the criminal “justice” system, including jails, courts and probation, increase inequality, do irreparable harm to youth and families, increase the likelihood of recidivism, are not rehabilitative, and do not provide effective prevention. Why do we continue investing in a system that actually increases the likelihood that youth will continue to attempt to kill?
We need to reframe our question. Why not ask, “What do we do with an inequitable and ineffective system that actually perpetuates current negative outcomes and increases the likelihood youth will attempt to kill?”
Politicians love numbers and data, right? A 2013 study of over 35,000 youth in a large urban area found juvenile incarceration decreases the prospect of high school completion and increases the potential of adult incarceration. According to the Justice Policy Initiative crime rates amongst youth are the lowest they have been in 20 years! Yet, the use of juvenile detention is not decreasing at the same rate. Rather, nationally it is increasing with 70 percent of the youth detained being held for nonviolent offenses.
We Seattlites tend to think of Seattle as the great exception. We are not! While there are fewer youth in the King County Youth Jail than ever before, racial disproportionality and the disparate impact on communities of color is skyrocketing. Between 2010 and 2014, King County Juvenile Court filings decreased immensely–felony filings fell 39% and misdemeanors 51%. While felony filings have decreased for all youth the largest beneficiary of this drop remains white youth. Between 2013 and 2014 the felony filings against Black (20%) and Native (17%) youth increased. In their own report KCyouthjustice writes, “…despite an almost 70 percent drop in King County’s juvenile detention population since 1999, the racial disproportionality that remains in it has increased to unacceptable levels.” Nearly half of the youth subjected to the detention center are Black despite the fact our Black community only makes up a tenth of the County’s population.
#NoNewYouthJail (NNYJ) organizers are asking the City of Seattle and Martin Luther King, Jr. County to move towards zero detention of youth. Research shows that jailing youth causes irreparable trauma and increases the likelihood of recidivism. NNYJ organizers believe in justice, accountability, and setting youth up, including youth who commit crimes, to live healthy productive lives in community. Organizers believe in a community where adults take accountability for the inequitable system and institutions we set-up and manage. A system which forces certain youth and families into poverty, marginalized and excluded communities, and, ultimately, the school-to-prison pipeline.
Facts. The current in use portion of the King County Youth Detention Center is 25 years old. It is neither “toxic nor cramped” rather it is practically empty. On average in November there were 33 youth jailed in the facility. Yet, the proposed new building is projected to contain 120 beds. The current facility is in need of some repairs, but not $210 million worth! King County’s own study of the existing facility describes it as “generally in good condition” requiring $795,981 worth of repairs; which is $209,204,019 less than the proposed facility.
People will continue to harm each other; including young folks. It is going to happen and we must have programs, facilities, and communities in place to respond. These programs and facilities should be proportional to the number of young folks who are likely to have contact with these systems, but more importantly must provide a humanizing community based experience. In reality, we all make mistakes and we all deserve the opportunity to move forward to make different and better choices.
The proposed youth jail is not only wildly disproportionate to the current use of detention in Seattle, but it also increases inequality and the likelihood of harm and trauma. Spending a million to repair the current facility seems an unfortunate inevitability. However, this does not mean we should continue to invest anymore than we “have to” in this proven ineffective and unjust system. Honestly, we should be more frightened by a system which keeps us in harms way, than we are of the possibility a youth may attempt to kill.
Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to Randall Pugh/ via Flickr