In 2012, the Seattle City Council voted 8-1 to replace their juvenile detention center with an entirely new building dubbed “The Children and Family Services Justice Center.” The current one is in such disrepair that its conditions are said to be inhumane. The proposed building would include three times more beds than were occupied at the time. It would cost taxpayers $210 million.
At the time of voting, members of the community were already working to combat youth incarceration and raised their objections to the proposal, though their voices went largely unheard. This could have been taken as a loss, but was instead a driving force behind even louder demands.
In the years following this decision, Seattle activists have spread their message against the new jail by door-knocking, attending city council hearings and speaking at community meetings. Organizations involved in the struggle include Youth Undoing Institutional Racism, Ending the Prison Industrial Complex, European Dissent, the Seattle King County NAACP, the Faith Action Network, No New Jim Crow Seattle, the Black Prisoners’ Caucus, Families FIRST (Friends Involved in Resistance to State Torture), and Washington Incarceration Stops Here, among others.
As with anything involving the prison industrial complex, people of color seem to be disproportionately taking the hit. In 2012, two-thirds of all youth booked in King County were of color; 42 percent of all incarcerated youth were African American, despite being only 7.7 percent of the county’s youth population. Seattle is often pictured as a progressive city, but such a racial disparity isn’t surprising. Nationally, African American youth are 4.6 times more likely to be incarcerated than white peers, even though all youth commit offenses at similar rates. White supremacy and the prison system leave no corner of the nation unaffected.
The tripling of available detention beds in an expensive new facility is wildly unnecessary, but incarceration is not so pragmatic in general. Young people who find themselves in the juvenile justice system are often there for offenses such as truancy, running away, curfew violations and violating liquor laws. In 2011, 95 percent of youth arrests were for nonviolent offenses.
Is incarceration really the best solution for such problems? According to the U.S. Department of Justice, even young people who commit the most serious offenses are not necessarily “on track” to become adult offenders. Stays in juvenile detention centers do not deter reoffending and, in fact, increase the likelihood of reoffending for young people who commit low-level offenses.
In February 2015, the King County Council was set to vote on an ordinance allowing for the detention center’s construction. Overflowing crowds supported five hours of public testimony, urging the Council to vote “no.” The Council unanimously approved the ordinance anyway.
In March 2015, King County Executive Dow Constantine and King County Judge Susan Craighead announced a plan to address youth incarceration in response to public protests. The plan includes avoiding detention sentences for low-level offenses, investing $4.3 million in job programs and diversion options, reducing the proposed facility’s number of beds from 144 to 112 (with maximum capacity closer to 80), working with probation officers to give incentives rather than punishments, and, for all Superior Court judges, reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.
This summer, the Seattle Office of Civil Rights released a “racial equity analysis” of the proposed youth detention center. Their findings concluded that youth of color (particularly black youth) are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system and that such involvement builds barriers to employment, housing and educational financial aid. The economic cost for each year an individual is locked away in such a facility is estimated to be $95,805. The report recommended that the City Council work to eliminate the need for youth imprisonment altogether.
On September 21, 2015, the Seattle City Council voted 9-0 to pass a resolution that endorses the goal of zero percent youth detention, developing policies to eliminate the necessity for their imprisonment, funding community-based organizations already working toward this goal, and, for the city’s Criminal Justice Equity Team, outlining necessary next steps by September 2016. However, the resolutions are nonbinding. They only reflect the intent of the Council and the city of Seattle is not legally mandated to enact it.
Although the city might not be immediately free of youth incarceration and the battle against a single detention center has proven long and difficult, September’s vote should resonate as a victory and an example of what dedicated organizing can accomplish. Public pressure means a lot. There is power generated when we align ourselves to fight back. We are one step closer to ending the brutality of the prison system that shackles us, ensuring a better future for our youth and, in turn, a better future for our country.