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.