The King County Youth Detention Center.
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  • The King County Juvenile Detention Center.

[Note: tomorrow we will be running a guest editorial from two King County judges who support the voter-approved plan to upgrade Seattle's juvenile detention center. They argue that facts about the project are "often misrepresented." —Eds]

On September 18th, over 120 community members packed into a Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability (PLUS) Committee meeting of the Seattle City Council. On the agenda was a seemingly innocuous item: a proposed amendment to the land use sections of the Seattle Municipal Code that would reclassify the existing King County-run youth jail at 12th and Alder as a “youth services center.” This reclassification would allow King County to bypass many of the procedures the city government typically requires for new jail building projects. The hearing was one of the many hoops the county is attempting to jump through in its voter-approved quest to tear down Seattle's existing youth jail and courts and spend $210 million to build a new facility. The county faces steep opposition, as Thursday’s hearing made abundantly clear.

Dozens of Seattle residents, including young activists, faith leaders, environmental activists, health care professionals, educators, and parents testified at the hearing, urging the city council to reject the amendments to the land use code. The reasons to oppose the jail are as varied as this growing coalition to stop the county’s plans, and include the following:

We don’t need 154 jail cells for youth. The brief discussion that council members and specialists had prior to public comment demonstrated little more than a cursory acknowledgment of the shift in the municipal code and the potential impact this change will have on young people. However, all the proposed plans for the new jail indicate that approximately three times more beds will be built than are currently in use. At least one King County Council member has suggested these extra beds be used to house homeless young people. Regardless of the stated plan, we believe that if extra beds are built, the county will attempt to fill them with youth, one way or another.

The current jail targets youth of color. In the past decade, King County has dramatically decreased the number of youth held in jail each night. However, current jail statistics reveal a growing racial disparity as the number of incarcerated youth has decreased. While the number of youth detained in King County is less than half of what it was a decade ago, the racial disparities have gotten worse, with black youth bearing the brunt of detention. Currently, black youth are nine times more likely to be imprisoned than white youth. Ending the Prison Industrial Complex is calling for a community led Racial and Economic Impact Analysis before the jail-building project moves any further. Instead, the county has done the opposite, convening an all-white community advisory committee to talk about ‘design concerns’ as black youth continue to be locked up.

People should not have to get arrested or go before a court to get social services. The county has sold the new jail and court project as good for families and youth, touting the services that will be gathered under one roof at the proposed facility. However, most of these offered services require an arrest. By the time youth reach the new jail, they will have been traumatized and dehumanized by interactions with police. Jail cells, cops, and courts are terrifying—not a friendly way of delivering services. Prevention programs including free, culturally appropriate drug treatment, family counseling, child care, and mental health support are less expensive and more effective when they are not tied to locking people up.

The new jail will continue to be harmful to youth. The county has advertised the new youth jail as a “safer and more efficient detention center.” However, we believe that there is no such thing as a “safe” jail. The caging of youth, and the isolation and removal from community it occasions, is inherently violent. According to a 2008-2009 study for the Bureau of Justice statistics, more than 10 percent of incarcerated youth are sexually victimized while locked up, the vast majority by guards and staff. We believe that health outcomes, educational outcomes, and other indicators of well-being plummet for youth who have been caged, and that they are far more likely to end up in prison as adults.

The youth jail building project contributes to gentrification. As the youth jail becomes more full of black youth, those same young people and their families have been pushed out of the Central District, where the jail is located. The black population of the Central District has gone from 51 percent to 21 percent over the last 20 years. Part of the proposal for the new jail involves the sale of the land on the edges of the facility to private developers—we believe for construction of condos and businesses catering to the growing white population. If this happens as we fear, the incarceration of young people of color will literally be hidden by new businesses and condos catering to a majority white population. The county calls this “creat[ing] a street life that is diverse and thriving.” We call this gentrification in its worst form.

There are alternatives to caging youth. County officials continually point to the need for juvenile detention to house youth in crisis. However, many of those in the King County youth jail are there for things like getting in a fight at school or with a family member, missing school, shoplifting, or running away from a foster home. They have engaged in behavior that, if they were a white child in a wealthy school and neighborhood, probably wouldn't have been dealt with using jail, but would instead have been dealt with through parental intervention, therapy, or support from their school. For the rare case in which a young person has engaged in a serious act of harm toward another, the proper response is to seek healing and reconciliation, not punishment. We already have many dedicated people engaged in alternative and transformative justice and youth work in Seattle. Young people, who have been most affected by the juvenile justice system, and have continually been kept out of the new jail decision-making process, are at the forefront of finding new answers to youth violence. Instead of building a new jail, we should let go of strategies that are not working and put resources toward supporting alternative strategies. We already use some of these strategies when wealthy white children get in trouble. Let’s apply them to all of our youth.

Building a new jail and courts is not inevitable. In August 2012, the King County ballot contained a proposed levy for a new “Children and Family Justice Center,” which ended up passing with 55.42 percent of the vote. We believe many people voting had no idea that the county planned to use the levy funds for a new jail for youth. We believe that true justice for youth and families involves creating programs that actually support well-being—child care, jobs, mental health support, drug treatment, arts programs, gardens, after school programs, income support, and housing. King County is at a crossroads. Will we allow the county to move forward with a project that guarantees the caging of our youth for decades to come? Or will we chart a new path and join the national movement to dismantle mass incarceration? We invite you to join us in finding a new way forward. Check out these resources and join the fight.

Alex West is a member of Washington Incarceration Stops Here. James Williams is a member of Youth Undoing Institutional Racism, and also a member of Ending the Prison Industrial Complex.