Op-Ed: If We Build The New Youth Jail, The Violent Criminals Will Come

by Gyasi Ross and Nikkita Oliver

Building a new youth jail and filling it with non-violent juvenile offenders and youth who violate probation will only accomplish one thing: creating more violent, adult offenders for the Seattle-King County region. To be frank, a youth jail is a public safety nightmare.

It is high time for Mayor Ed Murray, the King County Council and the Seattle City Council to get past platitudes, bumper stickers, and incomplete information in regards to this proposed $210 million dollar youth jail. In this day when everyone seems to want to be the “law and order” politician, it is time for bureaucrats to do something almost unheard of: listen to the facts. The facts simply do not support, compel or require this jail. Truth be told, the facts scream for something different.

Here are a few facts related to “law and order” and the youth jail in Seattle:

  • In 2012, voters approved a ballot measure for $210 million dollars “to fund capital costs to replace the Children and Family Justice Center.”
  • That ballot measure made absolutely NO mention of “youth incarceration,” a  “youth jail,” “incarceration,” “jail” or “lockup” generally. The ballot measure merely stated the facility  “serves the justice needs of children and families.” What it did not state is how it serves the justice needs of children and families (if at all).
  • At the time of the ballot measure, violent crime was (and has been) at its lowest point since 1970.
  • According to the Juvenile Justice Bulletin, over 95% of the juveniles arrested nationally have not been accused of violent crimes, such as murder, rape, or aggravated assault.
  • In Seattle, according to the Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative December 2015 Assessment, only 16% of the crimes were designated as violent; the vast majority of that 16% of those “violent” offenses were simple assaults. Simple assault is a misdemeanor, where a person “intentionally and without permission touches another person and that touching is offensive.”
  • Moreover (and maybe more importantly), study after study shows for non-violent juvenile offenders, incarcerating them is literally one of the worst things we can do.
  • A study of some 35,000 public school students by Anna Aizer of Brown University and Joseph Doyle, Jr. of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that young offenders who are incarcerated are a staggering 67 percent more likely to be in jail (again) by the age of 25 than those similarly situated young offenders who were not incarcerated.

These types of facts have compelled states all over the United States to abandon the antiquated and sociologically ineffective approach of locking up juvenile offenders. Those states recognize that doubling down on a failing system–incarcerating non-violent juvenile offenders–is counterproductive, futile and fiscally irresponsible. States like Georgia, Alabama and Texas, long criticized for having racist criminal justice systems which, as a matter of fact, disproportionately punish black and Latinx defendants, have even seen the light!

For example, Georgia’s House Bill 242 directed judges to stop locking up most juveniles and instead direct them into community-based rehabilitative programs meant to address underlying problems. According to Republican Governor Nathan Deal, felony commitments and placements in short-term programs dropped 62 percent. Moreover, commitments to state facilities are down some 20% since the new law took effect.  


In Texas, there has been an even greater factual record of success. We’ll let former Republican Governor (and Presidential candidate) Rick Perry talk about it:

“We expanded our commitment to drug courts that allow non-violent juvenile offenders to stay out of jail if they agreed to comprehensive supervision, drug testing, and treatment and also invested more in treatment and rehabilitation programs for drug addiction and mental illness, and shifted our focus to diversionary programs like community supervision. We reformed our approach to parole, imposing graduated sanctions for minor violations instead of immediate re-incarceration. The results have been extraordinary. Texas’ crime rate has dropped to its lowest point since 1968 and…during my tenure, Texas’ crime rate shrank by almost 24 percent.”

Texas, with a Republican governor(!) invested in a community based, non-incarceration model for non-violent juvenile offenders and has reduced recidivism by 25%! So, shouldn’t we in progressive, liberal, brilliant Seattle and King County, be questioning why our solution is to double down on a failing system? Throwing money at the problem with a bad plan always works, right?

No. How about we, instead, pay attention to the facts!

We know every time a non-violent offender is incarcerated the likelihood they will recidivate and commit a more serious, possibly violent, crime substantially increases. And that is why this new youth jail cannot move forward. The outcomes of building the jail will be imprisoning more non-violent offenders and youth with probation violations–who as a matter of empirical fact are the majority of youth held in the facility–and reinforcing an outdated system, we know based on evidence, makes us all less safe.

We anticipate the next question from many may be, “What does this mean we should do for the small number of violent juvenile offenders?” The truthful answer: “We need to figure it out.” And we can–as a community establish a humane, rehabilitative way to hold those who commit violent acts accountable. For now we use what is available (including grassroots community based measures) while also putting in the time, research, and resources to find the best practices possible. But let’s hold that conversation for later and focus on what we absolutely know to be fact.

We know, with 100% factual certainty, that locking up non-violent juvenile offenders is really, really bad news for the individual and the community. Abolitionist and civil rights activist, Dr. Angela Davis during her Seattle Unity Day keynote affirmed the work of the #NoNewYouthJail Campaign stating, “If they build it, they will fill it. They always do.” The facts (and the experts) say very clearly Seattle’s Mayor Ed Murray, the King County Council and the Seattle City Council are barking up the wrong tree. Because it is the jail, not the youth held in the jail, that poses the greatest threat to public safety in Seattle and King County.


6 thoughts on “Op-Ed: If We Build The New Youth Jail, The Violent Criminals Will Come”

  1. As a social worker, I appreciate your good intentions in advocating for youth who are involved in the juvenile justice system in Seattle. As critical thinkers, we must also consider counter narratives to the information we consume as “facts”. We all know that the way we digest facts and choose the information we share can impact the narratives we create and believe. We also hold biases and then choose the facts we focus on while omitting those that don’t fit into the narratives we create. Let me present some “alternative facts” (haha!) that were excluded from your op-ed.

    From January to September 2016, an average of about 55 youths were being jailed at the facility. The highest numbers of kids being held at the detention center were there for physically hurting another person to the degree that a felony charge was involved (about 22 kids) or violating the terms of their probation (about 10 kids).

    Source: http://www.thestranger.com/slog/2016/12/20/24757078/fact-check-how-many-kids-are-being-held-at-the-juvenile-detention-center

    Your article mentions a national source about national arrests not accused by violent crimes. By casually presenting this information, you are implying that Seattle falls within the parameters of this data; however, in Seattle, we are outliers that fall on the progressive extreme. Seattle is one of (if not THE most) progressive juvenile justice centers. When you choose to share information about national justice centers and don’t stay local, relevant, and immediate, your argument loses validity because you end up pinning this center in the same category as those that are less successful, and paint them as being the same. What would it look like to present this justice center in a more accurate light, and place it in relative comparison to the rest of the counties across the country? Is there anything this institution is already doing that you suggest? What are the barriers faced to implementing a zero-detention policy? Do you know what they are? Do you have quick fixes for those too? Is it plausible? Where has it been done? What have those communities done differently? As a community worker, one that focuses on the assets of community partners, you must know that aside from having deficits the Seattle juvenile services center also has many strengths and is already doing a lot of things “right”. Alternatives to detention are not new concepts.

    Since before I moved here, I have read that those at the juvenile justice center also belief that locking up youth is antiquated. It’s not necessary to quote Rick Perry about his beliefs about juvenile justice. He is not a pioneer in this respect and those ideas are not original or unique to him. You can quote our own very local officials who denounce racism and are fervently implementing alternatives to detention; so successfully that in a county of 2 million+ residents, there are only 50 something youth detained on any given night. I don’t know why you chose to leave those quotes or facts out of your article and instead took the opportunity to credit a white Republican man from a different geographical region. Why not quote the powerful, local leader, the African American and Honorable Wesley Saint Clair who recently released a Ted Talk regarding a cutting edge program? Here is a man that has and is doing a tremendous amount of work in our community. Credit him. Don’t use your power to omit him.

    One of the reasons that the new project insists on calling itself a Children and Family Center rather than a “youth jail” like some refer to it, is because incarceration cells are one component of the services offered. Since you have been involved with programs within the youth services center, you must know that the center works with many community partners and programs that are recognized nationally for leading alternatives to detention including Creative Justice, Diversion, 180, Restorative Mediation, and Drug Court. One of those, FIRS, is a program that involves non-detention for youth who HAVE been violent. Just how you wouldn’t call someone’s house or apartment a “bedroom” or a “restroom” because it is housed in the same building, the Children and Family Center offers many more programs than the incarceration portions. Perhaps the counter-narrative about why there wasn’t mention about the facility serving the justice needs of children and families is because there are alternate spaces in which these are discussed or because it is widespread knowledge among community leaders.

    The system in Seattle is not failing, in fact, it is working and that is why we need to fund it. The numbers of incarceration are lower than ever before although the population is booming. It is certainly not perfect. Never have I ever been part of a perfect system. Our country is founded on oppression. As a queer, woman of color, I acknowledge that racism is a systemic and institutional problem. The Youth Services Center does not operate in a vacuum. It belongs to a wider, interrelated kyriarchy. It is affected by racism in the communities, schools, law enforcement, poverty, CPS, healthcare, access to services, employment, housing, etc. Until racism is not addressed in these other areas, the racism caught at the levels of the justice system will not see a significant difference. It is easy and lazy to point the finger at one institution at a time. The work that needs to be done requires personal and revolutionary transformation from each of our behalf. That means being well-informed, clear about one’s intention and impact, and to do that, we need to do a lot of asking questions and listening. As you know, the youth that arrive in detention have been failed by the many systems they were involved with before they got there. It is simplistic and irresponsible, in my opinion, to share cherry-picked facts without looking at the larger and more complex picture to which these facts belong. It’s poor journalism, scholarship, and advocacy.

    Just how we are not demanding schools to lose funding or cease from being built because they are racist, it does not make sense to apply that logic in this space. Instead, we need to invest money into reducing detention and finding alternative programs. For each youth that is not detained, a wrap-around team of mentors, social workers, counselors, family workers, non-profits, contractors etc. to ensure that quality work is being provided, that they are reducing recidivism, and addressing root problems, which as you can imagine, are incredibly complex. More bodies require more space. Just because youth are incarcerated less does not mean property destruction, violent crimes, thefts, sexual assaults, threats, drug abuse, and general mischief is not being committed less in the community by youth. Those problems must be addressed. Guess who is doing that now? Take a wild guess? It’s the Youth Services Center. I wish you would not exclude those facts. I’m all for replacing old systems with new. We cannot go from incarceration one day to zero detention the next. A transition needs to take place in between and Seattle is on the fast-track there.

    Those 50 something kids that are detained on any given night is splitting hairs. Are you really that committed to investing your social/community efforts on these 50 youths in a population of 2 million rather than frying bigger fish? How about kids with disabilities that are sexually abused or neglected at preposterous rates? But, fair enough, I digress. Each kid matters. Let’s talk about these 50 kids.

    Is it realistic to eliminate some form of secure detention for children and youth? We are talking about the kids that our society is not equipped to help. If there’s a magical intervention out there, let’s fund that. The ideas behind zero detention operates from the premise that all conditions are perfect. That if 100% of youth and families had all the perfect tools and skills to fix themselves and were offered to them by the state, they would apply them. That “problems” are readily identifiable, that “fixes” are available and exist. That the laws and people in our communities, state, and nation are aligned. This kind of thinking is the same logic that got us into this whole mess to begin with. Youth aren’t problems that can be “fixed”, static, perfect, absolute, or harmed by all detention 100% of the time. There is sometimes a place for detention in our society, albeit as a deterrent, structure, and accountability, all things youth need to feel and know they are safe, even from themselves. Abusers of domestic violence, sexual offenders, and drug abusers often only change when there are severe consequences to their actions. These are “facts” too. Jail and prison can save people’s lives.

    We are likely not talking about kids who were in possession of pot, who just broke into a car, who have no prior history, and who have families and communities that are otherwise perfectly safe. We are often talking about youth with serious trauma that has not been addressed, who have internalized a tremendous amount of violence, resist services, refuse to make different choices, and have become a legitimate threat to community safety. There are youth out there who seriously lack empathy, refuse to acknowledge the impact of their behavior, take accountability, see that their actions are destructive, acknowledge their need for help, do not change their behavior, and refuse to accept they are causing harm. They do not all qualify for mental health services, engage in interventions, have access to the treatment they need, have families or homes, attend school, or are motivated to get these. As advocates, if our conversations and efforts focused on addressing these, we would be proposing constructive solutions rather than tearing down movements that work.

    One of the benefits of legalizing marijuana is removing the weight on justice systems on crimes that don’t matter to focus resources on legitimate threats to safety. Same logic here: Nowadays, there are less kids in this system, but the ones that are there have extremely complex situations for which there usually are not single fixes. What do you do with a youth that is diagnosed with ODD or BPD, who has been in the foster system for several years, will never agree to attend counseling, who has dropped out of school with no interest in returning, who is addicted to meth and believes that fighting is the only way to be a man in this world? Pretend the kid was almost killed in a drive by last month and does not believe he is in danger. We can make up 50 more scenarios like this and more. What about the kids that commit murder with no remorse, kids who are relentlessly violent or abusive? Should they avoid detention too? Locking them up might be less than ideal. I don’t know that we have come up with anything better.

    As a social radical, I wish the left and protestors would team up with the Youth Services Center, become accurately informed of the realities confronted by youth and families, and coming up with legitimate arguments regarding this debate. I very much want to support my colleagues of color and radical solutions. I am a bridge builder, multi-cultural advocate, anti-racism, restorative justice and mediation facilitator, anti-violence educator, youth worker, etc. I support realistic solutions that work, not jumping on simplistic bandwagons that aren’t critical, accurate, and pragmatic. I see a lot of that in the Pacific Northwest where I have found my home, but also feel very alienated from young leftist movements due to these reasons. We need legitimate solutions and evidence-based ideas (and money, because those cost money).

    The impact of investing a tremendous amount of energy into protesting against a team of progressive professionals, social workers, and advocates that are doing legitimately good work is that the communities suffer. Would you tell the families with youth that beg for accountability, structure, discipline, and consequences that they don’t know what they need or what they are talking about? Have you talked to families who believe an earlier and strict intervention could have helped their kid’s dangerous behavior? To the families that hopelessly call the police time after time, just to have no actions taken? To the parents of youth who refuse to get treatment for their substance abuse and die? To the families whose youth graduate to adult criminal behavior thinking prison is not a reality? The impact of attempting to shut down a progressive center is to detract from the very thing you’re trying to accomplish. Please help change legislation. Help raise money. Help with tangible ideas, taking an objective stance, working collaboratively, and creating solutions.

    A college professor once told me something very simple and valuable: to fully understand and grasp a concept, you must fully read sources that both are aligned with your position, all those in between, and those that are opposed to something. I adopted this and opened my world to a much more holistic way of absorbing information. I am much more responsible about the information I share with the people I serve. It could really help. It also requires more work than having knee-jerk reactions, becoming alarmed by sensationalist headlines, and making a few clicks.

    Another helpful source: http://kingcounty.gov/depts/facilities-management/major-projects-capital-planning/current-projects/children-family-justice-center.aspx

    Thank you.

  2. Not only is the facility doing the kinds of outreach and innovative work with kids mentioned above, the current facility is awful. If you really care about children being locked up in draconian fashion, then you would really care that our kids need a new facility. I saw the current place when I was in law school in 1993, and it was really, really bad then. Our kids who are in trouble deserve much better.