Since April 2012, King County residents and hundreds of organizations have been speaking out against the County’s plans to spend more than $210 million on a new youth jail and family court buildings.
Teachers, artists, young people, public health workers, researchers, nurses, bus drivers, families, and people of faith have fought tirelessly to stop this jail building project and force the County to invest in human needs, not more cages.
Over the years, we have worked to stop the tax levy for the new jail, and the City and County’s permits for building. We won a lawsuit that shows that the tax levy was illegal, but the County continues to build, risking a significant budget shortage if they do not win an appeal to our lawsuit. In March, 2018, our coalition delivered a demand that the County Executive, Dow Constantine, put a moratorium on construction. When he failed to do so, we initiated the People’s Moratorium, a wave of protest aimed at stopping construction.
Frequently asked questions about the proposed new youth jail in King County:
Q: But won’t the new jail & court facilities be good for the youth and families who are in these systems?
A: King County says this project will benefit youth and families by making the jail nice for youth who are locked up and by adding more privacy for families going through the child welfare system.
Jail and prison building projects are usually justified by their proponents as being good for the prisoners. The truth is that going to jail and/or going through the child welfare system is harmful and damaging regardless of what the facility looks like or how it is designed. Youth who end up in foster care or juvenile jails have their family lives disrupted, have negative health and educational outcomes, and are far more likely to end up locked up as adults. Building jails and family courts does not benefit the people subjected to these racist, homophobic, transphobic, ablist, and anti-poor systems. We know that these systems do not work and are severely harming our communities. King County can choose to invest in growing and maintaining these systems, or it can invest in getting to the root causes of the social problems these systems are supposed to, but fail to, address. It is cheaper, smarter, and more just to invest in the things we know work: housing, income support, child care, arts programs, education programs, health care, and family counseling.
Q: But won’t this facility help youth and families get social services they need?
A: People should not have to get arrested or go before a court to get social services. By the time people reach a court or jail, they have been traumatized and dehumanized by interactions with police. Jails, cops, and courts are terrifying–-not a friendly way of delivering services. Free, culturally appropriate drug treatment, family counseling, child care, and mental health support should be available as prevention. Those services are less expensive and more effective when they are not tied to locking people up.
Q: What would you propose instead of building new facilities?
A: The No New Youth Jail Coalition believes that the County should shut down the existing facilities and stop using jailing of youth as one of its methods of addressing youth, family and school issues. If jailing youth were off the table as an option, we would turn to other methods of addressing problems youth face at school, with their families, and in their communities. In fact, we already do this with wealthy and white youth–when they have a fight at school or home, are caught with drugs, miss school, stay out late, or face other dilemmas they are more often supported to resolve the issues with their parents, with counselors, or with teachers. Youth of color are funneled into jails and foster care. We should let go of strategies that are not working and put resources toward supporting youth and families, particularly those who have been bearing the brunt of these systems.
The organizations that have endorsed the People’s Moratorium on construction on the youth jail are demanding that construction stop and the County negotiate with communities impacted by criminalization to repurpose the building and the hundreds of millions of dollars that would be invested in running the jail into the future. If social services, housing, income support, and youth arts and services programs were funded instead, our County would benefit.
Q: What about dangerous, violent youth? Don’t we need a jail to lock them up?
A: One of the biggest myths in our society is that people who are in jail or prison are there because they are dangerous. In reality, people are in jail or prison because they are poor people of color who are targeted by racist policing and/or who are put in desperate situations where they engage in criminalized behavior to get by. People in the King County youth jail are there for things like getting in a fight at school or with a family member, missing school, shoplifting, etc. They have engaged in behavior that, if they were a white child in a wealthy school and neighborhood, would not have been dealt with using jail, but would instead be dealt with through parental intervention, therapy, or support from their school.
For the very rare case where a young person has engaged in a serious act of harm toward another, our belief is that the proper response is to seek healing and reconciliation, not punishment. Children who hurt others do so, clearly, because they have been or are being hurt. We believe that in those instances, which again are not the central purpose or operation of the jail but instead are a false rationale (“jails make us safe from dangerous people”), the proper response is to create processes of healing and reintegration for that young person, not to throw them away forever. Jailing youth further isolates them, separates them from family, subjects them to abuse and humiliation, disrupts their education, and is a totally ineffective way to make sure that the harm doesn’t happen again. There are many models for reconciliation and prevention that people have used and are using and developing as an alternative to punishment/exile models, including a variety of transformative and restorative justice models. Again, for the vast majority of cases, we just need to stop arresting and locking up youth–-it is absurd to harm a young person’s life severely because they missed school, loitered, drew graffiti, or stole something. For the few instances in which serious harm has occurred, jailing will not help prevent it from happening again, get to the root causes of why it happened or heal the people concerned.
It has become “common sense” in the US that there are “dangerous people” who need to be locked up. This “common sense” is essential for maintaining a society that is the most imprisoning society in the world, and the most imprisoning society that has ever existed. We have come to believe that putting people in cages is business as usual because it is big business-–a lot of people profit from these systems and make their money planning and building new and improved ways to cage people. However, most societies have not had prisons and jails, and certainly most societies have not routinely caged children. It is not a healthy or sustainable way to deal with harm. We have to do some digging underneath our gut reactions that we need a youth jail for “dangerous youth” and ask–who is actually in that jail? Does caging people make us safer? What actually would be good ways to resolve harm that happens in our communities? Jails and prisons actually cause harm rather than resolve it.
Q: But we have always had jails and prisons in the US, right?
A: The existence of police and incarceration in the US is rooted in white supremacy. The policing and incarceration we see today directly stems from slave patrols in the southern US that were in place to control and contain Black people. Today, not only is the US the world’s leader (by far) in levels of incarceration, but our rate of incarceration has exploded by 500% over the past 30 years. Crime rates haven’t increased over this time, but imprisonment has expanded drastically. Instead of feeling safer, we see people missing from families, being taken away from care-giving roles, losing their places in schools, jobs, and community organizations. Isolating people from those that care about them doesn’t make problems go away, it often exacerbates them. People without citizenship status can also be punished by deportation, another form of banishment that completely removes people from their communities, compounding the isolation experienced during incarceration. Youth are subject to deportation as well.
In King County, in recent years, youth jails have become more filled with youth of color. Black youth, for example, make up only 6% of the Washington youth population, but 21% of youth sentenced to Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration facilities. We need to think about why young people of color are more likely to be targeted by the police, and their resulting disproportional representation in court systems and jails. Adding a new youth jail to our county only adds to the cycle of criminalization. Across the country, we have seen new jails and prisons being built only to be filled, no matter what promises were made. And we know who will be filling those beds: low-income youth, youth of color, and those already marginalized.