Vote "no" on King County Proposition 1, a nine-year $210 million levy on the Aug. 7 ballot to replace the juvenile court and detention buildings. Merely replacing worn-out buildings does nothing to address the costly systemic problems with juvenile justice in King County.
ON Aug. 7, voters will be asked to support a levy to replace the county’s dilapidated juvenile court and detention buildings. It is reassuring to see King County officials acknowledging and acting upon the poor state of these facilities.
However, if we are trying to create a more effective justice system, we should fix a broken system — instead of broken buildings — that judges and families struggle against when trying to craft the best solution for each child.
Vote no on King County Proposition 1, a nine-year $210 million levy to replace the juvenile court and detention buildings. Merely replacing worn-out buildings does nothing to address the costly systemic problems with juvenile justice in King County.
When children are arrested on suspicion of committing a crime or violating their probation conditions, the court must decide what to do with them. Frequently, they are held 24/7 in detention, a jail-like environment, until their cases are resolved or a judge releases them.
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Secure detention is by far the most damaging and expensive option for youth and, in turn, for all of us. The high expense comes not just from the cost of buildings and staff for a detention center, but also from the high re-offense rates of youth who were previously held in detention.
Being held in juvenile detention is a better predictor of recidivism than gang membership, carrying a weapon regularly, or having a poor relationship with parents. A 2001 study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy included re-offense rates in its long-term cost analysis of detention and several alternatives, and found that detention’s cost-benefit ratio is among the worst.
The cost is not limited to mere dollars; a study by the Justice Policy Institute found that detention increases the likelihood a youth will commit more crime later on. Concentrating delinquent youth together results in a phenomenon the study calls “peer deviancy training,” where detained youth bond with and learn from the troubled youth around them. The logical conclusion from this is that pretrial detention should only be done in the most serious cases where youth are a danger to themselves or the community; for others, detention is unnecessary, damaging, and expensive.
This negative impact falls largely on black and Latino youth, who are consistently detained at much higher rates than their white peers. Although juvenile arrest rates have decreased significantly over the past 15 years, the percentage of minority youth detained has increased. A system that has a disproportionate and harmful effect focused on certain minority groups falls short of achieving justice.
There are a number of proven, cost-efficient alternatives to secure detention. One of the county’s problems is that the population has expanded away from the current East Alder facility. Youth from outlying areas have a much harder time making it to court dates or counseling services, resulting in more trouble for these youth. Another problem is that some youth don’t merit being placed in a secure detention facility, but may not be able to go home — these children are often kept in detention because there is no where else to take them.
One alternative that could work in Seattle is juvenile reporting centers, where youth awaiting trial report for counseling and supervision for part of the day, usually during evening hours when most juvenile crime occurs. These centers have been implemented in other areas of the country. These jurisdictions built reporting centers closer to neighborhoods with youth crime problems, so that services and supervision were more available for youth who did not need to be locked up.
Instead of just replacing obsolete buildings, we should replace obsolete policies and improve the juvenile-justice system so that it actually achieves justice and results for more children and families. Rather than build more jail cells, the county should direct its scarce resources toward proven services to restore families and put children back on track.
Louis Edelman, top, is a 2012 graduate of the University of Washington School of Law. Kimberly Ambrose is director of the Race and Justice Clinic at the UW School of Law.