Opinion, Youth

OP-ED: Seattle’s Youth Need More Than New Jail


By Elizabeth C. Brown

On August 7, 2012, King County voters narrowly approved a $210 million levy to replace the dilapidated Youth Services Center (YSC) with a new Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC) to be built in 2018. The levy is restricted to capital costs, or facilities construction, and cannot be used for maintaining or creating services. Located on 12th and Alder in Seattle’s Central District, YSC facilities include courtrooms, schools, and detention space for youth.

Proponents of the levy have compared the current conditions of the YSC to child abuse, however they fail to see that building new jail facilities within the CFJC is a form of child abuse that makes entire youth populations disposable by depriving them of future education and job opportunities. If King County wants to serve youth and families, it must not build detention facilities within the CFJC.

The CFJC vision statement declares that new facilities will express King County’s commitment to justice and “cultural diversity.” African-American youth, however, make up around 40 percent of the detained population and are twice as likely to be arrested and referred to court as white youth, even though both groups commit crimes at the same rates. Racial disparities in King County’s juvenile justice system are matched by disproportionate rates of exclusionary discipline in Seattle Public Schools. The U.S. Department of Education is currently investigating SPS for expelling and suspending black students at nearly three times the rate of white students. Pushed out of the public school system, suspended and expelled youth are more likely to be funneled into the juvenile justice system and will face increased challenges in gaining education, employment, and housing.

While the 2013 average daily population of youth in detention hovered around 60, King County plans to build detention capacity for 154 youth at the CFJC. King County will be under pressure to fill this extra space, and proponents of the new jail have already suggested that extra detention space be used for homeless youth or in-treatment drug programs. This is both unjust and inhumane. The Justice Policy Institute reports that detention harms youth by increasing rates of mental illness, criminal behavior, and recidivism. Instead of making communities stronger, detention weakens communities by inflicting trauma on youth and their families, and, in turn, making all of us more—not less—vulnerable to crime.

King County’s display of “cultural diversity” is meant to target the new whiter, wealthier population that has been moving into the Central District over the last twenty years and not the youth and families it says it serves. The CFJC will further appeal to this population by opening 3 acres of the 9.5 acre property to private development, including retail, restaurants, and condos.

Instead of detention space, King County could build capacity for diversion programs, including classrooms, community meeting rooms, or other spaces that don’t cage youth. Seattle residents need to join local efforts to demand King County use levy money to create spaces that will not dispose of youth who are systematically failed by Seattle’s education and juvenile justice systems.

Elizabeth C. Brown is a Ph.D candidate in English at the University of Washington and member of Seattle’s End the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC). Photo/Celia Berk, from the Night of Expression, a community event organized by Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR), a group of multigenerational activists (mostly youth), who have been working for the past year to raise awareness about the new youth jail. The event featured an open-mic, and the kids above talked about why they don’t want to have a new jail.