For far too long, we have been content to suspend or expel many minority students for perceived offenses that did not result in discipline for white students engaged in the same behavior.
THERE has been much discussion lately questioning the construction of a new juvenile detention facility in King County. Many believe there are too many youths, especially youths of color, unjustly held in custody. They argue that the primary goal for a juvenile-justice system should be harm reduction, which is rarely accomplished by incarceration.
The juvenile-detention facility controversy comes at a time when the United States and Washington state are in the midst of an important re-examination of many approaches to criminal justice that have led to the mass incarceration of minority youths and adults. Washington’s Access to Justice Board believes that action can be taken now that has the potential to transform our justice system and result in less crime and far fewer minority youths and adults languishing in detention facilities, jails and prisons.
First, we must begin by changing the approach to school discipline that has resulted in children being unable to obtain an education and stay out of the criminal-justice system. For far too long, we have been content to suspend or expel many minority students for perceived offenses that did not result in discipline for white students engaged in the same behavior.
Once out of school, the path back is so difficult that many children cannot return and their families cannot help them get there. Studies show that finishing school gives youths the skills to better find jobs. We need a highly educated society to compete in the 21st century world economy.
Second, we must use our evolving understanding of the complex problems many minority youths face — even if they manage to stay in school — to create ways that support rather than ignore their critical needs. We must restructure and better fund our mental-health system and chemical-dependency treatment services so that families can better access care for their children. Many youths find themselves detained for incidents stemming from untreated mental illnesses or chronic chemical dependency. The stress this causes families leads to excessive and unnecessary involvement with law enforcement and inevitably affects school attendance.
Third, we must re-examine the sentencing schemes put into place over the past generation that have resulted in large numbers of minority youths in custody. We should seek to keep as many young people out of the criminal-justice system as possible, with increased diversion and options for services.
Once criminal charges are filed, we should be guided more by restorative justice that holds people accountable while acknowledging the rights of victims. And we should not impose legal financial obligations that are insurmountable for impoverished young people and their families.
Systematic reform as outlined above, along with other measures, would reduce the incarceration of minority youths, reduce crime and strengthen our community.
The time for pilot programs is over. We need our positional leaders to use their authority and power to design and implement a holistic systems approach for the young people in our criminal-justice system.
The sooner we and our leaders act, the sooner we will start reducing crime, saving money and reclaiming the lives of our young people at risk so that they can become productive and contributing members of our community.