What would you do with $210 million in public money? Spend it on housing? Dedicate it to education? Plant a public garden? Build a center designed by youth for youth? For many people in King County, the answer to this question is brutally simple: Let’s use this money to continue to lock up children, who are disproportionately young people of color.
This is the result of Proposition 1, a confusing tax levy King County voters approved last August that will pour hundreds of millions of dollars into replacing the existing youth jail. The replacement facility is misleadingly named “Children and Family Justice Center.” Make no mistake: This is still a jail.
Unfortunately, many King County residents who approved the levy may not have realized they voted to spend money to continue the incarceration of our county’s children for at least the next 30 years. The proposed new youth jail will contain 154 cells although the current average daily population of incarcerated youth is 56.
King County voters, ever the generous group, were told that the jail and courtrooms currently housed at 12th and Alder were so dilapidated that we needed the levy to pay for a new facility. Instead of spending that money to just rethink a system that is clearly not working, county leadership suggested that a vote against the jail was equivalent to condemning children to live in an unsafe building. The problem is that jails are inherently unsafe for the children who are locked up, and for neighboring communities.
Despite plans to complete the jail in 2018, local grassroots groups are mobilizing against it. They are part of a growing racial justice movement opposed to what sociologist Loïc Wacquant calls the “hyperincarceration” of the United States.
In a recent study published in the journal “Race and Justice,” Christian Breunig and I, both political scientists, analyzed state-level budgets for prisons from 1984 to 1999. We sought to determine what were the most important factors that led state officials to increase spending on correctional facilities proportionate to the state budget. Crime rates? Unemployment rates? An elected official’s political party? None of these factors had a significant impact. Instead, we found that the size of the African-American population in a state was the most important factor, regardless of the crime rate. Our prison system is based on maintaining a system of white supremacy.
Here in Seattle we continue to pretend that the criminal justice system is not driven by racism. This includes our approach to locking up youth. According to a 2012 presentation made to the Washington State Supreme Court by the Task Force on Race and the Criminal Justice System, our system continues to target youth of color: “Although the juvenile crime rate is at one of its lowest points in history and progress has been made in reducing overall juvenile detention rates, youth of color continue to be disproportionately arrested, referred to juvenile court, prosecuted, detained and sentenced to secure confinement compared to their white peers.” A 2013 joint report by University of Washington researchers and the Washington State Partnership Council on Juvenile Justice describes how this occurs in King County: “Cases involving African American youth were 4.2 to 5 times more likely to be referred to the juvenile court than cases involving white youth, relative to the demographics of the county.” Detention leads to tremendous disruption of youths’ lives, along with upending the communities in which they live.
Why is this racist system acceptable? Why is it acceptable to lock up children? Why are we unwilling to question our deeply ingrained assumptions about jails and prisons? It’s time to challenge our assumptions about whether the criminal justice system actually makes us safer — and what safety really means.
Local grassroots organizations, such as End the Prison Industrial Complex, Washington Incarceration Stops Here and No New Jim Crow Seattle are all mobilizing to stop the jail. Let’s join them and other similar groups in their efforts. That way, instead of seeking destructive solutions, we can come up with creative answers.