King County is re-examining its proposed juvenile jail, while the U.S. attorney general is calling for more and harsher sentences. The solution is what it’s always been: Fix social problems before people need to be jailed.
Every controversy about locking people up begs the question: What are jails for? Are they for punishment or rehabilitation? Do they exist to preserve public safety, or to store people the community doesn’t know what else to do with?
Well, all of those reasons apply to various degrees, and people argue about where the emphasis should lie. But if we want a safer society with more people living better lives, then we need to wean ourselves off jails as the go-to solution for multiple problems.
This week three issues caught my attention. The federal government is moving back toward harsher sentences. A long conflict over the building of a new King County juvenile-justice facility in Seattle continues. And some counties are trying to find alternatives to jail for people who have mental illnesses.
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It wasn’t always that way. The prison population began to skyrocket around 1980 as a reaction to drug-related crime and straining infrastructure and budgets, eventually leading government officials in both political parties to agree we needed to rethink what we were doing.
The Obama administration began dialing back federal sentences for some crimes and issuing pardons for people who had been imprisoned under sentencing laws that have since been changed.
Now, with a new presidential administration in office, the system is moving back the other way. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has asked federal prosecutors to seek the harshest penalties for most crimes. Carrying through on that and other proposed changes will increase sentences and the prison population, especially for drug crimes.
We know there are better ways of dealing with drug abuse. When heroin addiction began to soar, much of the country took a kinder, gentler approach to the problem.
Authorities locally and nationally are also rethinking the jailing of children. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that automatic life sentences for juveniles amount to cruel and unusual punishment and are therefore unconstitutional.
Children are still developing, the thinking goes, and can be changed.
King County had been changing the way it deals with juvenile crime over the past several years, with a greater emphasis on rehabilitation and less on locking up young people. When the county decided to replace the aging juvenile jail in Seattle’s Central Area, it adopted a design with fewer cells and with space to house services for children and families.
There has been a vocal campaign to prevent the county from building a juvenile jail at all, and that campaign won a victory in the Seattle City Council, which voted Tuesday to allow for an appeal of its earlier decision to issue a building permit for the facility.
The county has recognized that locking kids up is an ineffective way to help them or the community in the long run. Its goal is to jail only young people who have committed the worst crimes and to focus on helping the rest improve their behavior and their life prospects.
I’ve written before that public pressure has accelerated the progress toward more humane and effective practices in the justice system, but that some jail space will be necessary until we’ve addressed the issues that lead children to commit crimes, especially violent ones. Dealing with those issues is where the energy should be placed now, not on an appeal.
Jails are a marker of failure of other social systems — of families and neighborhoods and schools and health-care systems — to address the needs of all children. Focusing more attention on children before things can go wrong is the most efficient way to combat juvenile crime.
And just as there is something wrong with a society that locks up so many of its children, there is also a problem when more people suffering from mental illnesses end up in jail than in hospitals. Most people locked up in America have mental-health issues.
King, Snohomish and Pierce counties are part of a national effort to do better. It’s called the Stepping Up Initiative. The goal is to reduce the number of people with mental illness in jails and to help people in the criminal-justice system recognize mental illnesses and know how to get help for people who need it.
Jail is rarely the answer to a problem, and it shouldn’t be the first resort. We’d do better if our discussions were based on addressing underlying problems, with jail as an option only when we can’t do better.