Former inmate says new King County youth jail is a mistake

Seattle kids listen to Heirius Howell talk about his experiences in the King County youth jail during an MLK day rally earlier this year. (Photo by Alex Garland)
Seattle kids listen to Heirius Howell talk about his experiences in the King County youth jail during an MLK day rally earlier this year. (Photo by Alex Garland)

As a young man, Heirius Howell spent a lot of time behind bars. He was locked up so often that he can’t remember exactly how many different times he saw the inside of King County Juvenile Detention Facility, but he guesses somewhere around 14.

Now 26, Howell says the pathway into the criminal justice system for most kids starts just like his did: they aren’t getting the attention they need at home because their parents are struggling mentally or financially. The kids go to school and act out, and the eventual result is incarceration.

“If you have enough money to build a new youth jail, you have enough money to change a kid’s life,” Howell says. “Instead you lock them up. You’re telling them you don’t care about them… and you don’t want to take the time to find out what they need.”

He’s talking about the contract for development of a new “Children and Family Justice Center,” approved by the King County Council last month.

The Council’s unanimous vote came after hours of opposing testimony by activists sharing positions similar to Howell’s — that arresting and detaining youth just perpetuates a vicious cycle, and that the $210 million tax levy approved by voters in 2012 for the construction of the new jail would be better spent on things like 1,000 full-ride scholarships to the University of Washington or by feeding 8,000 families of four for a year.

Speaking from experience, Howell says he believes the new youth jail will continue to reinforce criminalization of at-risk and troubled youth.

Although he was first locked up at the age of ten, Howell’s struggle started long before that. When his family first moved to Seattle from Chicago and they had to live on the streets and in shelters for five years before finally making it into transitional housing.

A 2011 study by the National Center for Juvenile Justice (NCJJ) found that about 70 percent of youth arriving at the doors of King County Juvenile Detention Center already had some type of interaction with services provided by the child welfare system, like foster care or child protection assistance.

According to the study, this subset of juvenile detainees faced a higher recidivism rates and was more likely to spend longer periods of time inside the facility.

Heirius Howell, who says he was in the King County Juvenile Detention Facility about 14 times as a child, addressed the crowd at an MLK Day rally in January. (Photo by Alex Garland)
Heirius Howell, who says he was in the King County Juvenile Detention Facility about 14 times as a child, addressed the crowd at an MLK Day rally in January. (Photo by Alex Garland)

Howell believes his life would be significantly different if he could have avoided juvenile detention to begin with.

When the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance allowing the construction of the youth jail last October, Council Member Kshama Sawant, was the only member to vote against it. She’s argued that the system is “stacked against Black youth.” Citing data collected from King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention by advocacy group EPIC, Sawant said two-thirds of youth booked in 2012 were classified as people of color and 42% of those incarcerated children were Black, even though Blacks make up less than 10% of the people living in King County.

“If these were the statistics for White youth, we would be talking about an urgent crisis,” she said.

Sawant isn’t the first one to point out that the King County justice system appears biased against racial minorities. The NCJJ study found that Black and Native American youth with a history in the welfare system were “75 percent and 79 percent respectively” more likely to end up back in the corrections facility than those of other races, whether or not they had a history with the child welfare system.

The study recommends that at-risk youth in King County need “earlier, more effective and more timely intervention” to halt their advancement into the system.

Shaakirrah Sanders is an associate professor of law at the University of Idaho College of Law and a former public defender for King County, where she worked with many young men in situations similar to Howell’s.

“For a long time there have been allegations that young men, young men of color in particular, are not treated the same in the criminal justice system overall,” said Sanders. “They’re punished more harshly for misdemeanors and statistics appear to make it clear when it comes to investigation and apprehension that young African-Americans and Latinos are pursued more harshly.”

Howell can recall a time span when he was 12 years old where every week for two months he was at the detention center to receive punishment or go to court. Not only does he feel it wasn’t effective, but his record has haunted him into his adult life.

“All those Assault 4’s… They just piled up,” he said. “I had a cop at the precinct tell me my record was as thick as a Sunday paper.”

In 2004 at the age of 15, Howell says he was admitted to King County Jail on robbery charges with a bail set at $100,000. He believes his lengthy record from juvenile detention weighed on his case during trial. He says he was found guilty for being an accomplice to a robbery because wouldn’t tell authorities who had actually committed the crime.

After four and a half years he was released at the age of 19, only to be booked again six months later, he said. Another robbery charge led to another five and a half years behind bars.

Because he was in the system from the age of 15 to 19 and didn’t have an opportunity to get any work experience, Howell believes he never really had a fighting chance.

You don’t teach someone what they need when they’re inside, but then you expect them to get out and be better. It doesn’t work like that,” he said.

Now he’s been out since March of 2014 and plans to keep it that way. Still, he feels the system is working against him. Because of his record he says he can’t find a steady job. And while he has changed for the better, he doesn’t credit it to his time behind bars.

King County officials say the current detention facility is beyond repair and that it makes more sense fiscally to build a new one. Those oppose say it's perpetuating a broken system. (Photo by Alex Garland)
King County officials say the current detention facility is beyond repair and that it makes more sense fiscally to build a new one. Those oppose say it’s perpetuating a broken system. (Photo by Alex Garland)

“It was not the key to a jail cell that changed him, it was the key to his heart,” said Howell’s pastor, Doug Wheeler.

Wheeler works at Christian Restoration Center Church of Seattle. He is a former parole officer and one of the developers behind Program 180, designed to keeps about 350 youth facing low-level misdemeanors out of the system each year by helping them “make a 180-degree change in the direction of their own lives.”

Wheeler has known Howell for 17 years and watched his transformation first hand. He said the support Howell received from his community during his time in jail made him realize his value and inspired him to change.

Wheeler also believes King County needs more than a new detention facility to help reform at-risk youth.

“What we really need are programs to keep kids out of jail in the first place,” he said. “We need to give them a pathway to correct their behavior, not a lock up facility. We need a treatment facility.”

Based on her experience as a public defender, Sanders agrees.

“If there were more resources towards… programs that don’t emphasize in incarceration, there would be fewer juveniles in the system,” said Sanders. “Diversion courts emphasizing in rehabilitation more than punishment would be helpful in preventing recidivism or committing offenses in the first place.”

County officials insist that construction of the new youth facility is moving forward without a doubt. But activists are still fighting it.

On Saturday, March 28th, they’re planning to hold a “People’s Tribunal on the US Juvenile Justice System” at Seattle University. The youth-led event will feature workshops, performances and testimony for and against the new youth jail from politicians, developers and community members.

9 Comments

  1. Lindsey, would like to discuss this article a little more with you over the next week. Send me an e-mail and we can talk. Thanks

    1. Well, maybe the reporter can go back a do a truthful story about how it’s really only a small number of repeat offenders who do the most damage to society. And how NONE of those serial offenders EVER turn their lives around until they come to terms with their decisions… which usually only occurs after they face HARD TIME.

      The statistics don’t lie. The activists and enablers do.

    2. Heirius Howell was featured on another KIRO TV story yesterday.

      Look up: “Delivery driver for Amazon had criminal past”

      I think anti-jail activists may wish to find better examples to make their case that repeat criminals should be free from incarceration. You can try to make Howell out to be a “victim of society” but the problem with that characterization is two-fold:

      First, it is intellectually dishonest. Heirius Howell is a perpetrator, not a victim. If you keep lying about something it doesn’t make it true. Transformation only comes when the truth is spoken.

      Second, by continually excusing his actions and blaming his crimes on “society” activists are preventing Howell from actually leaving his criminal past behind; he won’t ever become a productive member of society until HE AND HE ALONE takes responsibility for actions. The comments by Howell above, and his continuing pattern of repeat offenses illustrate just how bad the enabling can get. It’s bad for society, because innocent people are hurt – it’s bad for the perpetrator because his life will always suck until he comes clean and breaks the cycle of excuses, lies and failure.

      “Now he’s been out since March of 2014 and plans to keep it that way. Still, he feels the system is working against him. Because of his record he says he can’t find a steady job. And while he has changed for the better, he doesn’t credit it to his time behind bars.”

      Oh, really? It was the hugs and enabling that kept Howell out of trouble? How well did that end up working out?

      And how can we taxpayers get behind expensive diversion programs when repeat offenders just keep repeating the same offenses every single time they are let out of prison???

  2. This guy is a long-term sexual offender, recently caught waving his penis at people. Take this article with a grain of salt, he probably was quite charming to the reporter.

    1. Monty – I know that also and have other information for the reporter. No response from her. Bad guy. Will offend again.

      1. I’m not a bad guy and I wasn’t waiving my penis at anyone I got caught peeing outside by a woman and she called th police. And I am not a long term so I’ve been doing a lot better since then and own my own business you fucking prick monty and Mike but thanks and for your info I am only a so because I didn’t tell on a person who was suppose to be my friend and it took 4 1/2 years of my life as whole I was 15 AND AUTOMATICLLY DECLINED ON.

        1. So, let me guess: the other offenses you committed before were also “just a big misunderstanding” and “somebody else’s fault”

          Even when you are caught on video, and even when your electronic bracelet tracks you directly to the scene of the crime, you STILL cannot come to terms with WHAT YOU AND ONLY YOU did.

          Keep lying to yourself, blaming your mistakes on others, and finding suckers to make excuses for you (like Kashama Sawant and Doug Wheeler) and I guarantee things will only get worse.

          Ignore the political activists with their tired, recycled “civil rights” talking points and simply take some responsibility for yourself: if you start in that direction, and stay on that simple path, your life will get a lot better.

          The very people who claimed to be helping you are actually driven by their own personal issues, guilt & resulting political ideology. Disadvantaged folks will always be pawns in their self-serving games.

          The deck IS stacked against you, but the people stacking it aren’t who you think.

    2. Yup. And he just keeps offending. Even after society offers him a zillion chances at redemption.

      At a certain point, all these enablers need to let him fail or succeed on his own. My taxes have gone up thousands of dollars to take care of people who cannot lift a finger to be responsible for themselves.

      And rather than getting a “thank you” for paying for all these programs and second, third, fourth, fifth chances…I am told that I AM THE PROBLEM. That my “privilege” is to be blamed for all of the terrible decisions Howell keeps making.

      Right wing activists have long used the tactic of blaming victims, rather than hold the real perpetrators accountable. It’s disturbing to see left-wing activists adopting the same dishonest approach.

  3. Heirius Howell was featured on another KIRO story yesterday.

    I think anti-jail activists may wish to find better examples to make their case that repeat criminals should be free from incarceration. You can try to make Howell out to be a “victim of society” but the problem with that characterization is two-fold:

    First, it is intellectually dishonest. Heirius Howell is a perpetrator, not a victim. If you keep lying about something it doesn’t make it true. Transformation only comes when the truth is spoken.

    Second, by continually excusing his actions and blaming his crimes on “society” activists are preventing Howell from actually leaving his criminal past behind; he won’t ever become a productive member of society until HE AND HE ALONE takes responsibility for actions. The comments by Howell above, and his continuing pattern of repeat offenses illustrate just how bad the enabling can get. It’s bad for society, because innocent people are hurt – it’s bad for the perpetrator because his life will always suck until he comes clean and breaks the cycle of excuses, lies and failure.

    Delivery driver for Amazon had criminal past
    http://www.kiro7.com/video?videoId=479572090&videoVersion=1.0

    “Now he’s been out since March of 2014 and plans to keep it that way. Still, he feels the system is working against him. Because of his record he says he can’t find a steady job. And while he has changed for the better, he doesn’t credit it to his time behind bars.”

    Oh, really? It was the hugs and enabling that kept Howell out of trouble? How well did that end up working out?

    And how can we taxpayers get behind expensive diversion programs when repeat offenders just keep repeating the same offenses every single time they are let out of prison???

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