Why King County doesn’t need a new juvenile hall

King County's current juvenile detention facility, on 12th Ave and Alder St, has fallen into disrepair. Prop 1 would expand property taxes to build a new facility. (Photo by Matthew Rutledge via Flickr)
King County’s current juvenile detention facility, on 12th Ave and Alder St, has fallen into disrepair. Prop 1 would expand property taxes to build a new facility. (Photo by Matthew Rutledge via Flickr)

You might have guessed from the green King County elections envelope sitting on your table that there’s an election coming up on Tuesday.

In the midst of a lot of local races that won’t really get decided until November, there’s a pressing item on the ballot. It’s King County Proposition 1, which would create a nine-year, $210 million tax levy for a new “Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC)” to replace the old facility on Alder Street in the Central District.

Sounds simple, except that “Children and Family Justice Center” is a sugary way of saying juvenile hall, which is itself a sugary way of saying “a jail for young people.”

We’re living smack dab in the middle of a prison nation. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please check out “Proliferation” by Paul Rucker, which tracks how prisons have sprung up like daisies in the US in the last 232 years.

Using Philadelphia as an example, this graphic compares the cost, both financial and social, of education and incarceration. (Designed by Jason Killinger for Maskar Design)
Using Philadelphia as an example, this graphic compares the cost, both financial and social, of education and incarceration. (Designed by Jason Killinger for Maskar Design)

Compared to the rest of the world, the United States is #1 in military spending and #1 in imprisoning its people.

Militarization and the prison industrial complex are two sides of the same coin of state-sanctioned violence, happening both outside and inside the US. When a person’s autonomy is taken away – as it is by both these forces – it causes physical and psychological trauma to them and their community.

In King County, marginalized communities have been targets of both.

Youth of color are overrepresented in both juvenile justice system and transfers to adult justice system.

What really gets me is that a major function of the King County Juvenile facility is to handle truancy cases, in other words, being absent from school. There are a lot of reasons a young person might not go to school – from it being an unsafe or a non-supportive environment to a downright uninteresting place, or due to their economic situation. To eventually detained youth for missing school is only perpetuating an existing “school-to-prison pipeline.”

And if youth of color and low-income youth aren’t going to prison, they’re being recruited to join the military, instead of higher education or job training programs.

So it’s not so simple as just voting yes to improve a facility for young people that has fallen into disrepair.

For those opposing the new juvenile hall, it’s about taking a stand somewhere against the expansion of this school-to-prison pipeline.

There have been different communities and identities working together to oppose the new juvenile hall, including youth, adult allies, teachers, former prisoners, prison workers, university students, lawyers, environmentalists, and racial justice activists. On July 26th they came together for a “festival of resistance” that coincided with King County council meetings and protests outside the existing facility.

One of the organizers is Dean Spade, who is also a professor at Seattle University school of Law. Spade said that the group has been organizing together for a while as prison abolitionists.

A group of citizens opposing the new facility held a "festival of resistance" outside Alder Academy last week. (Photo by Dean Spade)
A group of citizens opposing the new facility held a “festival of resistance” outside Alder Academy last week. (Photo by Dean Spade)

“The world is full of alternatives,” Spade told me. “There are plenty of ways to reimagine how the US and King County could address various problems of poverty and crisis through meaningful interventions rather than investing in more jails and prisons.”

So, what are actual, real ways of dealing with crisis and harm without applying further crisis and harm?

Organizations like Incite! Women of Color Against Violence and Generation FIVE have been developing these concepts of transformative justice and community accountability. That instead of relying on a system that perpetuates violence, we can involve the community and focus on programs that provide safety, support, and prevention, while addressing the root causes of conditions that reinforce oppression and violence.

Countries, like Canada, Japan and Cuba have chosen to invest more in education and health care than military and criminal justice. As a result they are healthier and more educated and are experiencing less of a poverty gap, less violent crime, and a longer life expectancy than the US. We rank a dismal 50th worldwide in life expectancy. We can certainly learn a thing or two from our global neighbors on how we can keep people alive, and incarcerating huge portions of our population isn’t the key.

There have been non-jail experiments happening in the US for years. The earliest was in the 1970s, when the state of Massachusetts closed their youth prisons and transferred them to community-based alternatives.

This year in California, Governor Jerry Brown proposed to eliminate the Criminal Justice Juvenile program from his budget after years of expensive reforms and to instead shift the focus to health and education.

Seattle youth organizations, like the Seattle Young People’s Project, School’s Out Seattle, and The Service Board (TSB) are working together with Cleaveland High School on a mediation program that focuses on keeping at-risk students in school.

And King County itself has divested in punishment-based solutions and invested in prevention, which in turn has helped reduce the amount of youth detentions from 191 back in 1998 to 72 this year.

But as Ariel Wetzel pointed out in her article for The Stranger SLOG last week, if a newer $200 million facility comes along, it may create a new incentive to fill it with more youth and reversing this positive trend.

While there are so many types of violence and we as a society may not have all the skills to handle them, I do think we can get there. But we can’t continue to feed millions of dollars into a system that isn’t actually keeping our communities healthy and safe.

As long as we allow the “prison mythology” as Spade calls it, to be legitimized we’ll see the same cycles of violence and oppression perpetuate in our communities.

As Angela Davis put it back in 1998, “Mass incarceration is not a solution to unemployment, nor is it a solution to the vast array of social problems that are hidden away in a rapidly growing network of prisons and jails. However, the great majority of people have been tricked into believing in the efficacy of imprisonment, even though the historical record clearly demonstrates that prisons do not work.”

A “No” vote on King County Proposition 1 is a “N0” vote on the prison industrial complex.  It’s worth taking a stand now.

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