Dialogue on Juvenile Detention

Apr 29, 2016 | News

More than thirty people attended the Dialogue on Juvenile Detention after church on April 3rd. This forum, sponsored by the Economic Justice and Beloved Conversations Education Teams, followed several book discussion sessions on two UUA common reads, “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson and “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander.

It was a lively discussion, with panelists including the Criminal Justice Strategy Manager for the King County Executive’s Office, Rev. Terri Stewart, Director of the Youth Chaplaincy Coalition, who preached here recently, a former prisoner who has created Unleash the Brilliance to help keep youth of color out of prison, the coordinator of the Restorative Justice Pilot Program with the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, and two law students from the University of Washington working actively in defending the civil rights of community members threatened with incarceration.

What did we learn? All of these panelists are working hard to minimize juvenile detention and the huge disparity in detention of youth of color, especially black youth.  All acknowledged that youth referred to the justice system are generally victims themselves – of dysfunctional families, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, and often of being raised in environments psychologically damaging to youth of color – bias and discrimination in the overall society and in their own schools. “Hurt people hurt people” and most youth end up in the system because of our larger social systems and the nature of the criminal justice system itself. Youth in the system generally register 92 on a 100-point trauma scale. One surprising note: female referrals to one diversion program were higher than for males.  While overall youth detention has dropped by 60% over the last decade due to interventions and reductions in referrals for status crimes, the proportion of incarcerated youth of color has risen dramatically.  86% of youth referred in 2015 were youth of color, and most of those were African American. The disparity grows as youth go deeper into the system, with African Americans most likely to end up in Secure Confinement.

Panelists agreed that while the purpose of incarceration is to protect public safety and the safety of the youth, incarceration is demoralizing and dehumanizing and generally further damaging to the youth. They noted that only 20% of juvenile crimes are violent, and 10% of youth have been locked up for status (truancy, running away, failing to show up for court dates, violating parole) and 40% for property (theft, trespassing) crimes. About 30% are referred during domestic violence events. So while the public may feel safer with increasing detention, most confinement has little to do with protecting the public. Youth between 17 and 19 who commit violent crimes are automatically “declined” into the adult system, and that process is currently being contested.  Both audience members and panelists noted that brain research indicates that youth are far more likely to lack impulse control and should not be locked away for life; they usually grow out of irrational behavior.

Much of the dialogue focused on interventions currently underway to reduce juvenile incarceration. Community programs such as the 180 Diversion program, Unleash the Brilliance, mentoring and various forms of restorative justice seem to be having a significant effect. Panelists emphasized the need to enable youth offenders to be seen, heard, valued, helped, and brought back into the community in which they have offended. They (and usually their families) need hope, guidance and support rather than punishment.  Some panelists noted that violent and repeat offenders are often left out of restorative justice options, yet it seems to be very effective.  It goes to the heart of the causes of offense. Apparently New Zealand uses Restorative Justice for all offenders.

Controversy exists around the construction of the new Children and Family Justice Center, a $210 million project at 12th and Alder funded by a multi-year levy. Some panelists and audience members suggested that the voters were deceived into thinking that the Center would include services and resources while it is actually a court house and jail. Although the number of “beds” (cells) has been reduced from 212 to 112, only an average of 60 are currently used nightly.  Some argued that the commitment to find alternatives to detention is undermined by this project, and the money should be used to support families and youth in ways that improve lives and prevent detention. Yet the current facility is in disrepair and needs to be upgraded or rebuilt. Its current state is not conducive to function and is not “trauma informed” – designed to support youth and families psychologically. One critique is that a central facility serving the entire county but located in downtown Seattle makes it very difficult on youth and families trying to receive services, appear for court dates or visit loved ones who are detained. Some suggested models in which local residential service and respite housing centers would better serve the youth of this large county.

What can we do? There are many teams and organizations working to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, and the county and City of Seattle have teams focused on reducing detention as well as reducing racial disparity in detention. The University Unitarian Church has a team currently focused on examining and hopefully modifying the construction of the new Children and Family Justice Center, diverting funds to services.  Several members are already working with their Juvenile Injustice team. Several local organizations including YUIR (Youth Undoing Institutional Racism), EPIC (End the Prison Industrial Complex) and European Dissent (white people working against racism) are working against the new construction.  People can also contribute to the 180 Diversion program, get involved in some way with Best Starts for Kids, became a mentor through a number of programs, become a Court-Appointed Special Advocate for a child in trouble, and/or follow the King County Youth Justice blog site.  For more information, contact Louise Wilkinson.