Opinion: Embrace the work to make zero detention a reality

King County Executive Dow Constantine (center) speaks with protesters against the juvenile detention center outside the Dec. 19 “Hate Free Zone” rally organized by Pramila Jayapal. (Photo by Marcus Harrison Green)

Vibrant, community voices have led our city and county elected officials to call for a “pause and reset” on the plan to build King County’s new Children and Family Justice Center. But hesitation to act can easily slip us back into a mainstream narrative where “zero detention” isn’t an option: one that suggests that opposition to the youth jail comes from a fringe, vocal minority. This narrative discounts the rising numbers of community members, leaders and youth who have been deep in this fight for equity and justice.

We urge elected officials to create a different narrative: one that embraces the potential of all of our youth, and centers family and community strengths as alternatives to youth incarceration. Our youth are not criminals or broken. They are young people who need to be supported and resourced for success as they develop into adults. Have we done what it takes to transform our systems of service and justice to yield the best outcomes for our most marginalized youth and their families?

Let’s consider what the experts have to say. In March 2012, the Washington Supreme Court held a Symposium on Juvenile Justice and Racial Disproportionality that concluded with a panel of local experts.

What set apart this panel from other speakers is that every one of them had lived through the experience of being in the juvenile justice system. They explained how youth enter the system, the setbacks in education and life from youth incarceration, and the stigma and dead ends associated with justice involvement. Two youth described getting arrested at school for truancy, keeping them from school. In many cases, students miss so much school, it sets them back a year.

One of the panelists called for an end to strip-searching youth, recounting her own experience with the intrusive and unsettling practice after every family visit. She was so humiliated by the searches that she eventually asked her mother to stop visiting her, cutting herself off from her family when she needed them most.

The panelists cited poor education opportunities inside youth detention and a punitive culture that didn’t promote rehabilitation, recommending greater access to programs and more community involvement opportunities, more individualized support and mentorship as well as more time around supportive family members, friends and teachers.

While King County has been a national leader in dramatically reducing youth incarceration, we believe the next wave of leadership should demonstrate urgent reform of our thinking, practices and physical facilities. There is still much more that can be done to reduce detention admissions and tackle institutional racism that allows for troubling racial disparities to persist. Up to now, we’ve let design and jail size be primarily driven by criminal justice and corrections principles. We can’t expect to see zero detention become a reality without bringing diverse expertise to the table and rethinking the project with all of these factors in mind.

Our community benefits from those who have taken this stand to fight for equity and justice. The call for no new youth jail necessitates a “reset” space for re-envisioning how we, as a community, want our children to experience justice. The mainstream narrative is shifting. But we will be most encouraged when we see our elected officials and government staff step into that “reset” space with urgency, openness, humility and a commitment to engage those most directly affected.

In addition to the authors, this message contained a “sign-on” from Dr. Ben Danielson, medical director of Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic; Dominque Davis, CEO of Community Passageways; Diane Narasaki, executive director of Asian Counseling and Referral Service; Erin Okuno, executive director of Southeast Seattle Education Coalition; Estela Ortega, executive director of El Centro de la Raza; Rosa Peralta, executive director of the Latino Center for Health; and Terry Pottmeyer, president and CEO of Friends of Youth. 

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