As our collective attention becomes fixated on the national threat to democracy posed by the newly inaugurated president — and his band of ultra wealthy, militaristic henchmen — we must not lose sight of the threats our local communities have faced since long before this new administration came to power. The proposed construction of the new youth jail in Seattle is one such threat.
Two weeks ago, Real Change signed on to the campaign to oppose the construction of the new Children and Family Justice Center in Seattle’s Central District. We joined Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) and more than 60 other organizations in an appeal to the Master Use Permit (MUP) that allows King County to begin construction of a $210 million facility that will house 114 detention beds and a number of courtrooms, offices for judges and space for services. An appeal to the MUP cites a range of objections, including the lack of public notice, the negative effects of large detention facilities, environmental impacts and land-use violations.
The legal challenge to the MUP is mostly about the building, but EPIC’s activism since 2012 isn’t. The activism is about institutional racism.
In the last decade, the numbers of incarcerated youth have declined, while racial disparities of those incarcerated have increased. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, African-American youth are nearly five times as likely to be confined as their White peers. Latino and American Indian youth are between two and three times as likely to be confined. These disparities reflect a system that treats youth of color more harshly than White youth.
The county could rehab the existing building for less than $1 million but is instead preparing to spend $210 million. In 2012, when Real Change was initially asked to sign on to the campaign opposing the jail, we declined. At the time, we saw it as an unwinnable campaign that strayed from our mission of empowering homeless adults.
What a difference four years makes. In that time, we have deepened our analysis of the intersection of race and class and the racial disparities in homelessness. We have expanded our mission statement to include racial justice and have started to use a racial equity lens to make sure we give explicit consideration to race in decisions, including policies, practices, programs and budgets.
At the core of any analysis that uses a racial equity lens are two key questions: “Who benefits?” and “Who is burdened?”
In the case of the proposed youth jail, it couldn’t be clearer. The beneficiaries are the predominantly White private business and nonprofit interests who will profit off the jail, including the managing contractor Howard J. Rice, architects, surveillance and technology vendors, lawyers, lobbyists and, yes, nonprofits that will populate the new facility offering an array of social services.
Those burdened are the young people — overwhelmingly people of color — who will experience re-traumatization and their families and communities. The burdens of youth incarceration extend well beyond the term of incarceration. Compared to those who didn’t serve time, youth who are incarcerated are less likely to finish high school and more likely commit violent crimes and land in jail again as adults. Opponents of the jail are not saying we shouldn’t hold youth accountable for their actions. Rather, they are saying that we should be investing in community-led alternatives such as restorative justice that are far more effective and equitable.
When viewed through a racial equity lens, our decision to join the fight against the new jail, like our earlier decision to sign on to the campaign against the new police precinct in North Seattle, was a no-brainer. As readers of this paper, we hope that you will join us in standing up to racial disparities and injustice in our criminal justice system. With the city approving the MUP, the power to withdraw from the jail lies in hands of King County Executive Dow Constantine. Please contact him at 206-263-9600 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also put pressure on his supporters and donors. Demand that we withdraw from the youth jail and instead invest into the school system and community led alternatives to incarceration.
No New Youth Jail group wants community solutions
EPIC files appeal to county youth detention permit