November 27, 2013
Vol: 27 No: 48

Community & Editorial

If youth are the future, why does King County want to lock so many of us up?

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My name is Valentina. I am a 17-year-old black female and an intern for Youth Undoing Institutional Racism, a multi-generational program run by the American Friends Service Committee that focuses on developing global leaders and undoing institutional racism. I am against using $210 million of taxpayer money to create new jail beds inside the Children and Family Justice Center, which will be built over the next several years on 12th and Alder.

In 2012, black youth accounted for approximately 10 percent of King County’s total youth population, yet they made up 39 percent of the youth held at the current detention facility, also on 12th and Alder. Black youth in King County are incarcerated twice as often as white youth even though white youth outnumber black youth by a ratio of 7-to-1.

It’s not that youth of color are more likely to commit a crime: It’s because of systemic and structural racism. As a black youth, it disgusts me to know that I live in a society where I am not only treated as a second-class citizen, but I am faced with statistics that tell me that because I am black, my chances of living in and ending up in poverty are three times higher than other youth. Statistics also reveal that I am more likely to drop out of high school than I am to receive a college degree.

The new facility will be called a Children and Family Justice Center. Despite what it might be called, it is still a jail. It is still a place where young people are mistreated and separated from the rest of society. A report by the Justice Policy Institute says that one-third of detained youth develop depression after being jailed and that suicide rates are up to four times higher than the general youth population. Once young people have been in jail, they are more likely to abuse drugs, commit more crimes and become violent. Going to jail once significantly increases the chances of youth ending up in detention again. The safety of the community is important, but jails do not make our communities safer.

People have and always will make mistakes. It’s not right for those who commit a crime to go without being punished, but is jail the right punishment?  A recent op-ed in Real Change by Hazel Cameron and Mike Heinisch (“New Children and Family Justice Center will help youth find a better path,” RC, Oct. 9) argues that the new jail will be an “opportunity” for youth, connecting them with human services. The authors argue that new beds are necessary because the growing population of King County means there will be more youth crime. However, over the past 20 years the crime rate among youth in the United States has decreased. The declining crime rate shows that there isn’t a need for a jail.

Instead of jail beds, the $210 million should be used to create alternative facilities within the center that could house needed services for youth. As tomorrow’s future leaders, youth need programs that can help them prepare for adulthood, care for their families and communities, and contribute as citizens without first going to jail. Real alternatives to incarceration include a weekend reporting program that could offer leadership training, or restorative justice programs like New York’s Common Justice, which focuses on rebuilding relationships between community members and youth accused of crimes. The money could be used to build facilities for a reception center like the one in Multnomah County, Ore., where youth can wait for family to pick them up without having to spend time in jail.

I believe that if people want to make change happen, they can. The $210 million that will be used to build the center comes from our tax dollars, and we should demand that it be used to empower youth by offering facilities and services that will help us. Tell King County Councilmembers to prioritize spending for education, ending poverty and creating programs for youth that focus on prevention instead of incarceration.

The choice is ours. Will we allow our tax dollars to be used to lock away youth? Or will we take a stand and demand that the center be used to help families and youth in each and every community?

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