An issue that has come up during this year's mayoral election is whether to construct a new Youth and Family Justice Center - a/k/a the Youth Jail. As a rule, the correct answer to "do you support the new youth jail" is "no." There are hairs to split, but ultimately the current battle is over a facility that may or may not need replacement (more on that later). 

One of the roots that I see to this dispute is the question of whether we should, as a society, ever place youth in jail. For purposes here, I'm going to go with "under 18" as my definition of "youth." While this debate has stemmed around the question of whether youth should ever be incarcerated, there is an argument - a colorable one - that some youth do need to be incarcerated. When speaking with prosecutors who handle juvenile crimes, one learns that the few dozen youth incarcerated in Seattle are incarcerated for pretty violent acts of domestic violence, gun violence, rape, sexual assault, and so on. 

And this gets to some more root issues. As a society, what have we done to put communities in a position where children of color are more likely to be incarcerated for violent offenses? Just as important: what are we doing to change? What steps are we, as a society, taking to partner with communities, not tell them what they need?

But also - is our incarceration system designed for restorative justice, or is it designed for punitive justice? 

One thing we learn in America is that poverty is a major contributor not only to criminal behavior, but also to how "justice" is handed out. Rich kids get home-arrest when they rape classmates, while poor kids get locked up for stealing food to survive. Black kids are much more likely to be poor, thanks to an economic system that is designed to benefit white men. This in itself is a major disconnect that exhibits institutional racism in our "justice" system. We don't ask the kid who stole to eat what he and his family needs - we just assume he's a criminal. I like to think we're getting better about that in King County, but by and large our society continues to be bent on punishing people who do "wrong." 

My experience working with young people who were experiencing homelessness, or had unstable living situations, also reminds me that some parents are shitty. Kids would run away from home because they weren't fond of being beaten or raped. That's a perfectly acceptable reason to leave home. Yet, our "justice" system would require their parents be notified if they were arrested, and while there may be a CPS investigation, the "justice" system is not known for taking teenagers seriously. 

Overall, the "justice" system is governed by statute. With regard to the facility, as pointed out by Presiding Judge Laura Inveen, something has to exist. RCW 13.16.030 states that constructing and maintaining juvenile detention facilities is a "mandatory function" of counties. Sentencing guidelines are established in RCW 13.40.0357. Judges are authorized to deviate from these guidelines only when they find that adhering would constitute a "manifest injustice." 

One thing that I believe we must do is focus on reforming the juvenile justice act, and "justice" more broadly. The idea that turning 18 suddenly flips a switch is erroneous. Sentencing guidelines with brackets for ages up to 29 are much more appropriate. And "justice" for the sake of punishment is just not something I can agree with. Further, prison labor should be held to the same wage and benefit standards as labor outside of prison walls, with access to comprehensive education and trade opportunities (if we really want to eliminate recidivism). 

In the interim - absent a miracle, we're stuck with a youth detention center. Will it be in Seattle or Kent is one question, and to this, as unpopular as it may sound - I pick Seattle. 

King County Juvenile Justice Center cell

King County Juvenile Justice Center cell

I pick Seattle because I believe we have more of an opportunity (and we, as a city, will take that opportunity) to re-shape what happens at the center. To dramatically decrease the scope, size, and cost. Statutes require that we incarcerate youth, but they do not limit our ability to push forward with restorative justice. Focusing not just on what is "wrong" with kids, but what support families need - and providing that support. For kids who need a safe place to recharge - we can make that a reality, with the support system necessary to help work out issues kids may be having. 

This is where the facility and its design is incredibly important - and where the County should re-visit what's what. Cells that look like cells tell kids a lot about how what we, as a society, think of them. Google image search juvenile detention, and you'll get a look at where we put "troubled" youth. Minimal access to natural light, a "prison" like feel - these tell me that, as a society, we don't value young people who are having troubles. We don't believe they are worth the investment of a more home-like atmosphere. 

This compared to Norwegian prison cells: 

Why the hell can't we have this for young people, at least???

Why the hell can't we have this for young people, at least???

The thing is: I believe in people. In particular, I believe in the good in people. The way our entire system works, however, we don't acknowledge that. Our thirst for revenge too often trumps good common sense. While I support broad justice reform, I also know the political reality that providing habitable reformation spaces for adults will not be nearly as popular as doing the same for kids. And if the State of Washington is going to force us to have a juvenile detention facility - fuck it, let's go all-out and make sure we are creating a home facility that treats kids with basic decency, and has program funding designed to support kids, their families at home, connect families with services that they need to succeed now, while continuing the policy push necessary to eliminate the need (or even ability) for any long-term detention, save for the most violent youth offenders. 

So back on the facility - King County Council Member Rod Dembowski and Seattle City Council Member Bruce Harrell wrote about this. The courthouse that is part of the campus is in dire need of replacement. The King County Courthouse is old, but ornate. The Regional Justice Center is sparkling and shiny and new. But where do we send kids? To the dank POS building in the Central District. Again - what is the message we're sending young people in trouble? That these projects are coupled together is frustrating, but I do believe that this part of the facilities needs replacement.

But the other part they bring up: The designing around this has been centered on incarceration as punishment, not restorative justice. I'm actually all for tearing down the existing 200+ bed facility. And when we design a new one (if we have the Mayor, the County Executive, City Council members, County Council members, all agreeing we need to do this, then where is the goddamn legislation to make it happen?), it must be done in a way that recognizes punishment should never be the goal of youth justice. Sometimes young people are going to need to be placed in a detention facility. But what it looks like is entirely on us as a community. And it is entirely on us as a community - and as politicians - to not just say we need reforms to the system, but to be actively engaged in making those reforms a reality. 

Beyond a facility (or even better - small facilities in both Seattle and Kent) for those most at risk to themselves, their families, or their communities, it is a smart idea to move away from incarceration to home monitoring - without a requirement for exorbitant costs that deter poor families from participation in these programs - so that kids who are non-violent and have a safe place to go home to can do just that. With the in-home support for the entire family, whatever it may be (rent assistance, food assistance, counseling, etc.)

On the whole, a big chunk of the needed changes to our juvenile justice system need to take place in Olympia. So when you hear a candidate say they want to reduce or eliminate juvenile detention, ask them what they're going to do beyond words to make that a reality.

And while that process is playing out, a big chunk of the reforms to how we do incarceration, as mandated by the state, can easily be played out here at home. If our leaders have the political will to make it happen.