Real Change Article

Hazel Cameron and Mike Heinisch recently wrote an article for Real Change (Volume 20, No 14).

New Children and Family Justice Center will help improve conditions for incarcerated youth

Oct 9, 2013, Vol: 20, No: 14

Those who work closely with troubled teens have found that when skilled and compassionate professionals step in to help, something powerful happens. Often, these young people turn their lives around.

That’s why we are outspoken supporters of King County’s new Children and Family Justice Center. We believe it’s an opportunity that won’t punish young people but will help them change the course of their lives. We believe a new facility, staffed by professionals and offering excellent programs, will give them a chance at a brighter future.

In a recent op-ed (“Don’t be fooled: King County’s proposed justice center for families and youth is still a jail,” RC Aug. 23), Seattle University Professor Rose Ernst questioned the new center, slated to be completed by 2019 at the site of the current facility in the Squire Park neighborhood: Will it become another way to perpetuate mass incarceration of our youth? Will youth of color disproportionately be held there? Is this an example of “build it and they will come?”

As professionals who care about young people, we want to acknowledge the legitimacy of her concerns. At the same time, we respectfully disagree.

It is true that a disproportionate number of youth of color are in the juvenile justice system in King County and nationwide. Scrapping the new justice center won’t change that. It is a cross-societal problem that needs broad solutions. The county is addressing all forms of inequity through its Equity and Social Justice Initiative. County leaders have adopted an ordinance requiring that work in every department be fair and just, to improve the health and economic well-being of all residents. The issue of incarceration rates of people of color is of special concern: Judges, prosecutors, public defenders, court and human services staff, County Executive Dow Constantine and county councilmembers are working to address the issue.

Driven by this commitment, King County and its partners have established several programs and innovations that have made the county a national model: King County’s juvenile justice system puts a premium on programs that help young people stay out of detention and addresses issues such as homelessness and drug addiction. As a result, juvenile detention rates in King County have dropped 63 percent since 1998. Last year, 1,280 youth entered a rigorous court diversion program that currently has a 93 percent success rate.

But as service providers, we believe we desperately need the new Children and Family Justice Center. The current facility often leaks when it rains. Its public areas are cramped. It’s expensive to operate. The new center will be profoundly different, designed to evoke dignity, respect and hope for youth and families. It will house a badly needed resource center to connect youth and families with services. Programs that provide alternatives to the judicial process will be housed there. So will a drug court and a family treatment court.

The new detention facility will be 25,000 square feet smaller than the current one, and it will provide 154 private sleeping rooms distributed among 11 different living halls. This will allow for separation of competing gang members, boys from girls and the violent and mentally ill from the rest of the youth.

The facility is being built for the next 50 years in a large county with a growing population. Average daily populations in detention have dropped from 200 in 1998 to 70 last year. But managers have to plan for peaks in population. The peak in 2012 was 100. Twenty years from now, we don’t want kids double-bunked and sleeping on mattresses in the halls like in the 1990s. If detention rates remain low, two of the living halls can take on potential community uses, such as beds for homeless youth or in-treatment substance abuse programs.

As professionals dedicated to youth, we’ve often dreamed of a world where young people need never be arrested or detained. Unfortunately, such a future is not yet within reach. At the same time, we, too, want to make sure youth of color are not disproportionately incarcerated. To that end, here’s our promise and call to action: Let’s shine a bright spotlight on this issue. Let’s be part of the conversation and the solution. Let’s work with the county for equity and social justice. The new Children and Family Justice Center will be an asset in our struggle.

By guest writers Hazel Cameron and Mike Heinisch. Hazel Cameron is a founder and current executive director of the 4C Coalition, a faith-based nonprofit that promotes mentoring services for King County’s vulnerable youth. Mike Heinisch is the executive director of Kent Youth & Family Services.