Justice isn’t color-blind, at least in King County.
According to a special report published last month, black youth in KC are roughly six times more likely than white youth to face a judge in juvenile court. And while the number of youth referred to juvenile court has been falling for years, the bulk of that benefit has gone to whites.
Speaking on behalf of the more than fifty judges on her bench, she says, Judge Susan Craighead is calling for a series of “listening sessions” with key players in the juvenile justice system. This includes representatives of government institutions which are “upstream” of the court—police, schools, and child welfare services — but also the families and communities most impacted by juvenile courts.
“We feel like we need all hands on deck to try to figure out what more can we do with this problem,” Craighead told CHS.
“This situation is utterly untenable,” said Craighead in a televised speech last week. (See the text here.) “As leaders of our justice system, we must take responsibility for our role in allowing racial disproportionality to be a fact of life in the juvenile justice system. We deeply regret this. And today we ask for the community’s help to make things right.”
Craighead acknowledged that the listening sessions, to critics of the court system, could look like lip service. “The ground has shifted underneath our feet in the last year or when it comes to the trust and confidence that the public has in the justice system,” she said. “Our goal is going to be to reach as deeply and as broadly into the community and in particular into communities of color, to understand what they think are the causes of disproportionality, what they think we can do about it.”
Her colleague Judge Wesley Saint Clair lauded Craighead’s leadership in addressing racial disproportionality, and echoed her vow to bring an open mind when listening to stakeholders. “We need to make sure we have the voice of our users, our parents and our kids that we require to participate in our [judicial] process,” he said. “We need to be able to listen to the criticisms that are going to come, and take them in with a sense of, ‘So how do we make this better?'”
But if the juvenile justice system is plagued by racial disparity — if it is, in some important sense, racist — can the judges within that system really change it?
Not without a hard look in the mirror, according to anti-racist organizer Dustin Washington. He fears that county officials will rig these dialogues in order to hear what they want to hear. “We don’t think that change can come from people like Judge Craighead or people above,” he told CHS after reading Craighead’s speech. “The change has to come directly from the community working with a clear analysis around structural, systemic, and internalized racism.” Part of that analysis is seeing racial disproportionality in its larger context. “They tend to take a broken-individual approach, but we’re trying to take a broken system approach,” he said.
Part of the context for Washington’s criticisms is the county’s contentious decision to build a new, $210 million Children and Family Justice Center (called a “youth jail” by its critics) at 14th and E Spruce. Proponents vaunt the facility as a humane alternative to the dilapidated structure which currently houses juveniles, and point to the array of services they hope it will provide. “If anybody were to go down there and look at [the existing] facility,” King County Council member Larry Gossett told CHS, “I don’t know how they would rationalize that we need to continue to have youth in particular, their families, or staff in a facility that’s not really fit for the sheltering of anybody, much less human beings.”
But for Washington and his cohort, investment in the new facility (as opposed to repairs to the old facility) amounts to an investment in the prison-industrial complex (the term critics use to describe the self-perpetuating system of public officials, private companies, and lobbyists involved with prisons). And judges and county officials who lobbied for that investment have shown through their actions that they’re not serious about fundamental change, he said. “For [proponents of the Center] to continue to frame arguments just around racial disparity and not the whole jail and all [its] implications… is just a dishonest argument, a dishonest debate.”
“They have co-opted the language of race and equity as good white liberals, but their actions don’t match their words,” he added.
Craighead and Saint Clair are, unsurprisingly, more optimistic about the listening sessions. “When you really peel back the layers that are associated with the concerns that people are expressing,” Saint Clair said, “there are more things in common than there are different.
“I’m encouraged that our community is willing to have these kinds of…courageous conversations, and that people are willing to come to the table,” he added. “It’s not going to be easy though. At all.”
On one point, at least, both the judges and Washington agree: bringing black prisoners’ caucuses into the listening sessions. Washington told CHS that including the black prisoners caucuses at Monroe State and Clallum Bay prisons would bolster their legitimacy, since the caucuses’ members are experts on structural racism. The proposal is an “excellent idea” Craighead admitted she had not yet thought of.
The county’s listening sessions are still being scheduled, and will initially only be open to participants. Critics of the new facility will have their own community discussion—a “People’s Tribunal on the US Juvenile Justice System” — on March 28.