Seattle City Council’s Resolution to Abolish Youth Incarceration

 In Laws

In August 2012, King County voters approved a nine-year property tax increase to build a $210 million Children and Family Justice Center to replace the rundown Youth Services Center (“YSC”), which houses Juvenile Court, Juvenile Court Services, and the Juvenile Detention Center.  Anyone who has been to the dilapidated YSC understands that it must be replaced or repaired (“complete renovations” are estimated to cost $250 million).

Regardless of whether King County replaces or repairs the YSC, however, the proposal has led to an important and long overdue discussion on how we (the community) should respond to youth offenders, especially non-violent offenders.  Study after study has found that youth incarceration severely harms the child’s mental state and threatens public safety through increased rates of recidivism.  Moreover, as noted below, the juvenile justice system is replete with glaring racial and social inequities.

As a result, rather than lock children in detention centers, cities around the country are turning to “community-based alternatives” as the more sensible, just, and humane response to youth offenders.  Community-based alternatives provide supervision and services to youth outside of detention facilities.  Recently, the City of Seattle joined this growing coalition when the Seattle City Council’s Public Safety Committee unanimously passed a resolution to move toward the abolition of youth detention in Seattle.  The resolution establishes goals of “zero use of detention for youth” and the use of community-based alternatives to detention instead.  The Seattle City Council should be commended for its strong and unequivocal stance in support of youth and against institutional racism.

In passing the resolution, the Council also brought to light numerous racial and social inequities in our juvenile justice system that must be taken into account as we look for solutions and improvements to the way our community responds to youth offenders.   For instance, while the use of secure detention for youth has been reduced by 75 percent, the number of African-American youth in detention has risen from 35 percent of the average daily population fifteen years ago to 50 percent today – nearly five times their representation in the general youth population of King County.  In fact, Washington State has a higher disparity between the rates of incarceration of African-Americans and whites than every single Southern state.  Startlingly, non-violent offenses, such as truancy and running away from home, accounted for nearly 200 of the youth incarcerated in King County in 2013.

Regardless of whether you support building the $210 million facility or renovating the YSC, community-based alternatives to youth incarceration can and should be the focal point to this debate.

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