King County Council candidate Girmay Zahilay.
King County Council candidate Girmay Zahilay wants Seattle's youth jail dismantled. Lester Black

In America, we don’t put children in cages. We don’t separate families in this country.

You’ve probably seen statements like this from Democratic 2020 candidates flashed across your evening news and parroted by friends and family on social media. You’ve probably seen pictures of signs with this language from protestors at the detention facility in SeaTac. You’ve probably heard the same soundbite on the radio during your morning commute. It’s a noble moral instinct, and it’s a statement I believe should be true.

Except that, right here in King County, it’s not. We do put children in cages and we do separate families. And we’ve been doing it for decades.

What I’m talking about is not the manufactured crisis at our southern border. I’m talking about the manufactured crisis in our schools and our criminal justice system right here at home.
We have created a system for youth detention that is unjust, expensive, and ineffective. Because we created it, it’s our responsibility to fix it. And we can — all it takes is enough political will and leadership willing to take bold action.

Before I lay out our high level plan, it is important to acknowledge that I am not suggesting anything original here — aside from the willingness to advocate seriously for these solutions as an elected official. Hundreds of community leaders and organizations have been in the trenches fighting against oppressive systems in our region for decades. Without the work of No New Youth Jail, Community Passageways, Choose 180, Creative Justice, and other organizations leading this movement, we would not have the political will to demand that our youth criminal justice system actually create justice for our youth.

The plan I lay out below is based on their work, incorporates models that have been effective nationally, and is supported by much of the youth development work I have done and continue to do today.

Here’s the approach: dismantle our current youth prison model, invest in community based alternatives and close-to-home facilities, and ensure everyone in our community does their part to support just alternatives to youth prisons.

In case you’re a newcomer to this debate, let’s establish why this is such an urgent issue for our community: nationwide, youth prisons are five times more likely to incarcerate Black youth, 3.2 times more likely to incarcerate Native youth, and twice as likely to incarcerate Latino-American youth than they are to incarcerate White youth. Youth prisons also do quite literally the opposite of what the criminal justice system is supposed to do: they increase crime and reduce public safety. It also costs Washington more than $95,000 per year to keep a single child incarcerated — money that should be spent on rehabilitation and other services aimed at addressing what led that child to commit a crime in the first place.

So why are we spending $95,000 per year to lock up a child in a system that is unjust, expensive, and ineffective? And why are we perpetuating this system by building the new youth jail? Our elected leaders would have you believe it’s because we had one of two options: leave kids in the dilapidated, unsafe old jail, or build the new jail. This is a false choice and it’s time for us to pursue a third option.

First, we must understand that for the vast majority of cases, youth detention is not the answer. Youth who commit nonviolent offenses should not be put in anything resembling jail. As mentioned above, jail makes it more likely that they’ll commit crime in the future and end up in an adult prison. Let’s follow the model proven to work in other major American cities by closing down juvenile hall and investing in community organizations, like Community Passageways, that are already building the infrastructure needed for rehabilitating and restoring our youth.

For youth that must be detained by law, for their safety or for the safety of the public, we must not put put them in the current (new) youth jail, which is large, dangerous, expensive and ineffective; instead we can bring them to close-to-home facilities. These are smaller facilities that are oriented toward restoration and located in the community where the youth was raised, rather than being prohibitively far from their families for regular contact. Close-to-home facilities give parents, caregivers and other relatives more opportunities to stay connected to their children and play a vital short- and long-term role in their treatment and rehabilitation.

Finally, throughout this reform work we must also create a vision for justice that foregrounds the true causes of youth crime and mobilizes everyone in our community to address them: poverty, housing instability, institutional racism in schools, and trauma. When parents, housing authorities, public health officials, mentoring nonprofits, and schools are put on equal footing with sheriffs, judges, and prosecutors in working to reduce youth criminal behavior and increase opportunity for our kids, we can truly achieve both our county’s stated goal of Zero Youth Detention and create a brighter future for the next generation.

This is why we push back when the County Council and the County Executive tout the reduction in the youth prison population. Our goal should not be to reduce the number of incarcerated youth while maintaining business as usual. Our goal must be to scrap business as usual and build a system that reflects our values.

Now that we have hard proof that alternative models to youth detention exist and result in more just outcomes for our kids, we have a choice to make: do we want to spend our tax dollars on locking kids up or unleashing their potential?

Girmay Zahilay is a candidate for King County Council, District 2.