I had an opportunity to be hired as a registered nurse at a juvenile detention facility. I never anticipated this position would be an opportunity for personal growth on a pathway leading to forgiveness. When I was 17, my uncle murdered my mother then committed suicide. He had spent time in juvenile detention during the 1970s, a time when there was very little information about trauma-informed care or the science of adolescent brain development. It was the perfect recipe for a psychologically harmful environment. He spent the rest of his life in and out of the system.

On my first day working in the juvenile facility, I saw my uncle’s face in the children standing in front of me. I had previously imagined him as an evil person. Working with the incarcerated children brought me to the realization that my uncle was not born a monster. He was first an innocent child who made poor decisions. Instead of receiving help, he received punishment and isolation. He was created by the very system that was meant to teach him a lesson. After 13 years of anger and hatred, I found compassion for the little boy living inside the man who murdered my mom. He was not a bad person. He was a victim of a system that destroyed his mental well-being. 

Incarcerated youth are 35% more likely to return to prison in adulthood than those living in the same community who were never imprisoned. Childhood incarceration is strongly associated with poor physical and mental-health outcomes in adulthood. I wonder how things would have been different if my uncle had received trauma-informed care at his first contact with the legal system. If steps had been taken to avoid re-traumatization and provide developmentally appropriate mental-health care, would my mom’s life have been saved?

Children behind bars is not a concept much thought about in our society. Tucked away in a downtown Seattle building, we unknowingly walk past children stripped of their freedom, their families and their hope for a bright future. Incarcerated children often face obstacles such as lack of support at home, substance-use histories, food insecurity, abuse and even homelessness. Then, the juvenile justice system takes a child who is already suffering from toxic stress and adds the load of incarceration. Who is helping them? Who is protecting their innocence? 

We are all touched by the consequences of youth incarceration. The current system sets up our future generation of young adults for failure instead of building them for success. There are circumstances when the secure confinement of an adolescent is necessary. But we must minimize these circumstances. Then we should work to transform the goal of detention from punishment to developmentally appropriate rehabilitation. Providing safety, mental health, education and treatment to the young people within our community who need it most will create a safer place to live for generations to come. 

King County’s Zero Youth Detention initiative has resulted in the reduction of detained youth, dropping the average daily head count by nearly two-thirds since 2015. However, the United States continues to have one of the highest imprisonment rates of children within the developed world. The children incarcerated disproportionately are youth of color; especially Black and Hispanic youth. Only 35% of King County’s population are people of color, but more than 80% of our detained children are people of color.

The current system perpetuates the systemic oppression of minorities and economically disadvantaged persons in our community. As discoveries about the science behind the adolescent brain and the effects of toxic stress continue to emerge, it is clear that youth incarceration does more harm than good. It is time to rethink the child justice system. We must end the incarceration of children and provide a therapeutic environment for adolescents who require confinement.