Justice for Our Youth

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Youth Services CenterThe City Council voted Monday to pass a land use amendment that will allow the County more flexibility in designing a new Children and Family Justice Center on 12th Avenue in the Central District. (In 2012, King County voters approved a nine-year, $210 million levy to replace the deteriorating facility.)

While a text amendment to the land use code initiated the Council’s process, the public discussion wasn’t really about a land use decision. It was a discussion about the nature of our juvenile justice system. Many community advocates gave eloquent and passionate testimony about how the current system fails youth – particularly youth of color who are disproportionately represented among those detained. They don’t want more money spent on a system that perpetuates these inequities.

While King County has made admirable progress reducing the use of juvenile detention over the last 15-20 years, continuing high levels of racial disparities show that we have not escaped the nationwide scourge of mass incarceration. We know that detention is not a good place for our youth and yet we struggle with how to balance that reality while keeping the broader community safe.

Boiled down, the juvenile justice system centers on a few important desires:

  • The desire to help our youth in difficult situations;
  • The desire to have a fair justice system free from racial disproportionality; and
  • The desire to keep our communities safe.

I believe everyone involved in the discussion to date – members of the community, City government, and King County government – shares these desires. At the same time, I think those working within the system sometimes feel that community advocates ignore hard realities about public safety, while the advocates sometimes feel that individuals in the system lack imagination and motivation to try alternative methods of justice.

If we move past these initial feelings, there is space for a very productive dialogue that leads to action.

Through this process, the City Council has negotiated a signed statement of commitment with King County to take specific steps to continue to address racial disproportionalities, including:

  • Working with a third party to conduct a race and social justice analysis of the facility;
  • Expanding the use of restorative justice models through pilot projects;
  • Encouraging school districts to reduce disciplinary suspensions; and
  • Exploring ways to reduce detentions that result from failing to appear in court.

The City Council also pushed back the date the land use change takes effect in order to give time for the conversations to progress.

These commitments did not come in a vacuum. The community deserves great credit for pushing this conversation forward and for continuing to challenge their elected leaders.

One final note: while a good start, this work won’t be enough to reduce deeply-rooted inequities. We must start earlier with active investments in upstream interventions like early childhood education and the Nurse-Family Partnership. Investing early will play a huge role in relieving our society of the scourge of mass incarceration.