Jailing Kids? We Can Do Better

On any given day, more than 60,000 children are locked up in our nation's juvenile facilities. Whether it's an urban jail or a rural boot camp, the results are the same. Youth locked up in secure facilities experience more mental problems, achieve a lower level of education, and make less money over their lifetimes. Research also indicates that the detention experience may increase the chances of re-offending.

Many states around the country have passed legislation to move resources away from state-run facilities and into locally operated, community-based programs. This shift in emphasis toward intervention and rehabilitation has made a big difference in the lives of children and their families.

Unfortunately, just as others are scaling back youth incarceration, King County, Washington is ramping up. The County is moving forward on plans to build a new, 112-bed juvenile justice facility. Voters approved funding for it in 2012, but what choice did they have? The current building is old and falling down in places, and King County failed to offer any alternatives.

It's important to remember that we have the option of not locking kids up. King County could move incarcerated youth into a range of supportive and supervised programs, obviating the need for a big youth jail.

In community-based alternatives, youth are placed in court-ordered supervision appropriate for their individual needs and level of risk. Some may enter home confinement, or house arrest, while others may report to day treatment facilities, returning in the evenings to their families. Other may be placed in specialized shelters or supportive foster care.

While under this supervision, young offenders get help with the root causes of their problems. Some may attend therapy with their families and learn skills that help them cope with stress, build positive relationships, and choose behaviors that don't hurt others or themselves. Many programs also give young people the opportunity to repair harm to victims and give back to their communities.

Research shows these programs are cheaper than jail and more effective in reducing crime and recidivism. While the average cost of a juvenile prison bed is $241 a day, a slot in a community-based program costs less than $75 a day.

By deciding to build a large, new juvenile justice facility, King County has committed itself to an outmoded approach. The County should follow the lead of the Seattle City Council, which has passed a resolution calling for no youth detention and approved over $600,000 in funding to support alternatives to youth incarceration.

We should put our funding into community programs that are already working to reduce crime and recidivism. King County leaders have the ability to end youth jails. Our youth deserve nothing less.