Skip to main content

Originally published on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 2015 at 8:00 AM

No New Juvie

End the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) is a community group currently working to stop the construction of the proposed new youth jail in King County, Washington. EPIC operates with staff support from American Friends Service Committee and includes members of Youth Undoing Institutional Racism, the People’s Institute Northwest and the community at-large. We come together in efforts to organize around putting an end to the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), which is historically known to affect our communities disproportionally.

We understand the PIC to be an entity with overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social, and political problems serving the interest of those in power. In recognizing that the criminal justice system is inherently racist, we are disturbed by the disproportionate incarceration and policing that targets young people of color.

This means that Black and Brown youth are more likely to experience the traumatizing effects of detention than their white counterparts. Queer youth of color are even more likely to be targeted by our country’s unjust criminal justice system. The criminal justice system does not rehabilitate, build or improve our communities. Instead it serves to separate and break us down.  These facts taken together mean that we cannot allow for this perpetuation of the prison industrial complex to occur. We must act now!

Youth, parents, children, families, prisoners, those whose voices are loud and those who are silent are united in the belief that we must shift our county's approach of "fixing broken youth" to "fixing broken education and juvenile justice systems." In 2012 a levy initiative passed supporting the proposed construction of a new Children and Family Justice Center at 12th and Alder; the facility as planned will include new courtrooms, judge offices, and space for programming. However, the disingenuous campaign to sell the levy to the public neglected to include the County’s plans to build a 96,000 sq ft youth jail with 150+ single-occupancy cells.

Crime and populations within our current youth jail are down. The average daily population in King County’s Juvenile Detention Center was 191 in 1998 & in 2012, it was only 70. SPD also reported in 2012 that major crimes in Seattle were at their lowest level in four years and have decreased 11% since 2009.

These numbers would be commendable if it wasn’t clear that the current policies and practices result in extreme racial inequities. In 2012, a total of 1,320 young people were held in secure detention at the youth jail at 12th and Alder. 522 (39.55%) of the occupants were African American, even though African Americans only made up 9.8% of the 2011 total youth population in King County. Similarly, Native Americans made up 2.5% (33) of those detained, though they made up only 1.1% of the youth population.

The County did not do a racial equity impact assessment to review the proposed new youth jail project. With the current policies and practices, the County will continue to produce results of extreme racial inequities. Even if the County did this assessment, it’s clear that communities of color will continue to be harmed, due to the ways in which the PIC has historically operated. According to the Justice Policy Institute’s 2006 policy brief, The Dangers of Detention, jailing youth has little-to-no relationship with reductions in crime in the community. It increases recidivism (instead of reducing it), which pulls youth deeper into the system and causes additional harm to youth.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation reports that in 2012, 86% of youth held in secure confinement across the country were held for non - violent offenses, most of which happen as a result of the educational system’s harsh discipline policies. Nationally it has become a trend to funnel children out of schools into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. It has been reported that 75% of adults who are incarcerated do not have a high school diploma. This is a reflection of America’s current fixation with punishing children rather than educating them.

Here in Washington, Seattle Public Schools are currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for disproportionately using harsh discipline with youth of color for the same offenses as white youth. This pipeline is undeniable: Helen Halpert, Chief Justice of King County Juvenile Court writes in a Seattle Times Op-ed, “Don’t Abandon Disciplined Students”, “Without access to education, these kids are less likely to progress academically, less likely to graduate, and far more likely to end up involved in the justice system.”

As a part of addressing root issues, we see this jail as a manifestation of a continued cycle of oppression. EPIC has taken action against the building of a new $210 Million “Children and Family Justice Center” in King county. The No New Youth Jail Campaign led by those most impacted by youth incarceration, youth of color, seeks to redirect funding away from the mass incarceration towards community based prevention, intervention and diversion. Incarceration of our youth has to end!