‘It’s a broken system that’s not working’: Proposed new youth jail will increase incarceration of youth of color

In 2012, King County, WA voters passed a levy initiative to fund the construction of a new Children and Family Justice Center. Given the fact that 100% of taxpayer money will be used for the construction of the facility – not for maintaining or creating services – it’s hard to think of this facility as anything other than a reinforcement of the school-to-prison pipeline, a widespread pattern in the US of pushing students, especially those already at a disadvantage, out of school and into our criminal justice system.

In King County, African-American and white youth commit crime at the same rates, yet about 40% of detained youth are African American, and they are twice as likely to be arrested and referred to court as white youth. Incarcerating youth without providing diversion or reintegration programs increases the chances of recidivism, thus continuing the revolving door of our criminal justice system – statewide and nationally.

“It’s by design to start that process off early,” says Ardell Shaw, intern for Solid Ground’s Statewide Poverty Action Network. He describes how this affects kids later in life: “A person has a felony on their record. Now they may repeat this cycle, and when they get out, they have huge amounts of fines to pay. The system creates enough stress where they perpetuate recidivism and keep that cycle going.”

New Youth Jail, King County, institutional racism, african american incarceration, king county juvenile infographic

Infographic created by Solid Ground

Now that we’ve gone over some statistics, imagine how these numbers will change after the jail is built. The county is going to have to justify spending a quarter of a billion dollars on this project somehow. Their justification will come in the form of incarcerating more youth, especially targeting youth of color.

“The purpose for building it isn’t about the renovations, it’s to put more bodies in it. Particularly African-American bodies,” says Ardell. “When it first came out they tried to glamorize it as a ‘family center’ instead of calling it what it actually was.” A youth jail.

What can you do about it?

1)     “Make calls. Support us when we have meetings.” Ardell is referring to the No New Youth Jail campaign, which is strongly backed by Youth Undoing Institutional Racism, The People’s Institute Northwest, and the Black Prisoners’ Caucus among other organizations, including Solid Ground.

2)     Call King County and City of Seattle council members Bruce Harrell, Mike O’Brien, Kathy Lambert and Dow Constantine to say you support the demands to defer this money elsewhere.

3)     Also, Ardell encourages us to talk about it. “Make people aware that it is a waste of taxpayers’ money. That money could be spent other ways. The juvenile system is broken and they DON’T fix problems in the current system.”

“You have to deal with what the issue is, why they got into trouble in the first place,” explains Ardell. “They’re not just committing crimes to commit crimes. There are other factors … So if we can get to the base root of what that is, then we stand a better chance. Then we let the kids know there is a possibility. They need to find a way to correct their system and really offer these kids help. Not just probation, but help.”

New jail not best way to address youth crime

NoNewYouthJail_webSolid Ground is joining a broad coalition of community groups led by End the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) and Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR) campaigning for community-based alternatives to building a new mega-sized youth jail in Seattle-King County.

While we recognize the need to renovate or replace the existing youth jail, we support the No New Youth Jail Campaign’s efforts to slow down the process and bring community leadership into prominence as we chart better ways to address youth crime. We believe the $210 million allocated for building a new youth jail could be invested with more impact through a modest facility upgrade, community-based prevention and diversion strategies, as well as the use of restorative justice practices for youth.

Youth crime is down in King County and the current facility is often not at full capacity. Therefore, we question the wisdom of building a larger jail, which would only reinforce criminalization as a strategy to deal with troubled youth. As an active member in the Equity in Education Coalition in Washington State, we are concerned about failings in our education system that disproportionately impact students of color and funnel kids into the school-to-prison pipeline.

We know from 40 years of experience as a service provider that disadvantaged families and youth need access to a broad range of wraparound services to overcome structural barriers to their success. These interventions and resources are more successful when offered before people get into trouble, not when they are already in jail.

Solid Ground is committed to undoing racism and other oppressions by examining institutional practices and policies that trap people in poverty and hold communities back. Investing $210 million in a mega-jail for youth would clearly reinforce institutional practices and policies that have wreaked havoc on communities of color and people living on low incomes. We look forward to supporting efforts to develop more proactive approaches to reducing crime and supporting youth in creating meaningful roles in our community.

More on the campaign is available on the No New Youth Jail blog.

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