So, What Do We Do With Youth Who Attempt To Kill?

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

14 thoughts on “So, What Do We Do With Youth Who Attempt To Kill?”

    1. The answer is understanding that there is no one monolithic answer. There are best practices. Jail should be a small part of it as we mentioned, “Spending a million to repair the current facility seems an unfortunate inevitability.” But also mental health counseling, jobs, decent housing, schools that allow opportunities for changing ones’ economic circumstances.

      1. So what are those evidence-based best practices and where are the studies that compare them to incarcerated youth? Why wasn’t that written about, with studies and numbers?

  1. Thanks to Nikkita Oliver and Gyasi Ross! Excellent piece.Every dollar spent on prisons and policing would produce more harm reduction if spent on the causes of interpersonal harm..Housing, decent good paying jobs , voluntary rehab programs, education etc. will do much more to stop ” crime” than jails and police. We also need to re-examine the definition of crime. It is a crime to kill one person, but mass murder is called ” warfare” and ” foreign policy”.. Why is drug use a criminal issue rather than a social and at most a medical issue? We won’t end institutional racism without ending the mass incarceration system.

  2. This article makes some good points, but it is not telling the whole story. The proposed construction project is for a justice center – not just a “youth jail.” Boiling the issue down to simply repairing the jail portion of the facility is disingenuous. The rest of the facility is in horrible condition and is in dire need of replacement. Go down and take a look for yourself. Go ahead and ask for a glass of water while you’re there. I hope you like brown water!

    1. There are no program funds for a youth and family justice center. It is really just for the building or facility which includes a jail and courts. The levy which funds the project is a capitol project levy; which only funds the building portion. The “youth and family justice center” was the title of the levy and in many ways, according to many voters, is and was misleading.

      I am personally in the facility on a weekly basis. I served there as a chaplain and now I work within the facility alongside youth and families as case manager and attorney.

      All of the above said, it is important to acknowledge that the $210 million is just for a facility and does not include any programmatic supports or changes that make efforts to move towards not using traumatic incarceration methods that actually harm children and families (from namely POC and poor, already marginalized and disenfranchised, communities).

      Investing $210 million in a facility, but not investing any new sizeable and equitable dollars in actual preventative and rehabilitative programs and alternatives further perpetuates the problems outlined above and shows fiscally who and what Martin Luther King Jr. County values.

  3. Good thoughts and ideas! I don’t see how we in Seattle and King County can call ourselves progressive or liberal if we allow this unnecessary jail to be built. If judges want new digs, that’s one thing, but to invest in jailing our (largely brown and black) children speaks loudly about what our real priorities are.

    I am cynical that facts will influence a person’s thinking when that person operates from a base of fear, resentment, and mistrust, as many conservatives do. Author Chris Mooney wrote a book called “The Republican Brain,” and according to his research, conservative and liberal brains are wired differently. With that in mind, my approach to those types that are heavily influenced by fear is to remind them that, while locking a kid up for one or two or five years or more might lull people into feeling safe, it makes that kid a greater risk to society, costing us many times more money in the future and not that far into the future. If that monetary message could be repeated over and over, maybe those fear-based types who give more thought to the cost to their own pocketbooks. I had a public official tell me recently that public safety is his highest concern and that’s why the new jail needs to be built, actually using the word “humane.” The inhumanity of jailing children aside, it’s as if he has no understanding of how incarceration furthers trauma, makes a child more angry, makes them feel abandoned by their society (and also how that affects other kids who know their society seems not to care about them), and what they learn from other similarly angry and traumatized youth.

    Public officials seem not to care that children are not just small adults who engage in adolescent thinking up to the age of 25 and sometimes beyond, not to mention that there are far more offenses today, misdemeanors and felonies, than there were when I was a kid and was able to mature out of my risky behavior and bad decisions.

    I wonder if repeating over and over what jailing our kids costs us in real dollars isn’t the only thing that reaches some people. That’s an unfortunate way to look at issues involving our children, but we use whatever we can to open our community members’ eyes.

    We also have to recognize that we have a sizeable segment of our business class that doesn’t care what the consequences are, they just want to make money, and prisons are the largest growth area for jobs and profits.

    “Incarceration Nations” is an excellent book that looks at what other nations around the world are doing. We can learn from them.