A Case for Decarceration: Follow up on “Youth Incarceration Numbers are Down But Racial Disparities are Up"

Last week’s blog post highlighted the first of three fact sheets compiled by The Sentencing Project on racial and ethnic disparities in youth incarceration and why this is important for the work we do on issues affecting children of incarcerated parents. The fact sheet shows that despite long-term declines in youth incarceration overall, racial disparities continue to grow. As we work hard to provide alternatives and diversion for youth, increased racial disparities mean that the underlying structural racism in how we do business has not yet changed.

Diversion programs are not applied evenly for young people across race. White youth are accessing alternatives to incarceration at greater rates, or not being arrested in the first place. Discretion by judges, prosecutors, law enforcement, and others and/or eligibility requirements are leaving out our most vulnerable youth of color, including youth with disabilities, LGBTQ and gender nonconforming youth (Lesbian, Gay Bisexual, Transgender, Queer,) and immigrant youth. Seattle, Washington, is a clear example of this problem.

For the past five years, Seattle City Council members have had the opportunity to prevent the construction of  a new juvenile jail. Instead, these and other elected decision-makers have insisted on perpetuating a system that has seen an overall reduction in the population of the youth jail but a continued disproportionate incarceration of Black youth. In 2012, a ballot measure passed for a $210 million levy to replace the aging juvenile justice facility with a new youth jail and courthouse. Community members and some City Council members have vigorously opposed the plan, saying that the ballot measure was intentionally misleading and that youth of color are harmed by the youth jail. The movement has fought for resources and support to be directed toward these young people instead of toward the new jail.

The Sentencing Project fact sheet reports that in Washington State, Black youth are 5x more likely to be incarcerated than white youth. This rate has steadily increased since 2001. The racial disparity reflected in youth incarceration is also reflected in the demographics of Seattle school suspensions, which provide evidence of the school to prison pipeline in action. According to a 2015 article, Black students in Seattle schools are four times more likely than their white classmates to be suspended from school. Disturbingly, the racial gap in school discipline begins as early as 5 years of age.

As millions of dollars continue to be devoted to criminal punishment efforts to cage youth, understaffed and underfunded non-profits attempt to fill the gap by providing services that our criminal legal system has failed to provide. These stop-gap measure are entirely unsustainable. As one example, in August, an afterschool program offered by the Union Gospel Mission of Seattle shut its doors.  The non-profit was faced with choosing between supporting young people with programming or allocating more resources to the housing crisis in Seattle.

It may be true that the plans for the new “Children and Family Justice Center” sound nice on paper. The King County website for the project attempts to justify the new youth jail by prominently featuring information about alternative sentencing programs on its homepage. These programs, like Creative Justice and the 180 Program, have shown demonstrated success. But when you look further at their programs, they are under-funded and already stretched thin. Or you could look to the restorative justice model being developed at Seattle’s Garfield High School. It’s a wonderful program, but it’s only available to students at that particular high school. Diverting the over $200 million dollars currently being spent on the new youth jail toward expanding these programs could make decarceration a reality for our youth, benefiting thousands of lives in the process. This may be the only way to truly address the racial disparities in a legal system built on institutionalized racism.

*Written with support by Jed Walsh. Jed Walsh is a queer and trans organizer based in Seattle, WA.

Also posted on Justice Strategies Blog.

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