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As 12th Ave justice center moves forward, juvenile court judge calls for racial reform

Juvenile court judge Susan Craighead.

Juvenile court judge Susan Craighead.

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.”

BlackvWhiteYouthLineGraphHer 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.

Conceptual sketch of the approved Children and Family Justice Center, AKA youth jail.

Conceptual sketch of the approved Children and Family Justice Center, AKA youth jail.

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.

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30 thoughts on “As 12th Ave justice center moves forward, juvenile court judge calls for racial reform

  1. Seems like it’s every other day that we read in this blog about a high proportion of young, black youth shooting at eachother, viciously beating students, the elderly and other innocent people to steal their cell phones and wallets – and causing general mayhem on and around the Hill.

    Somehow, we are to believe it is “structural racism” & “racial disparity” guiding the young violent offender’s hands to pull the trigger?

    I believe government and the courts have an obligation to work hard at diversionary strategies to keep kids out of detention. But NOTHING will change until some of these self-appointed activists stop excusing criminal activities of their friends and family members, and get them to own-up and take responsibility for the bad decisions they’ve made.

    If a young person’s criminal activities are constantly excused in order to forward a well-worn 60’s-era political agenda – how in the world is that young person ever going to move away from violence, and learn compassion for other living beings?

    Telling a child they are a victim of society or treating a young adult as if they are a victim of “the system” and instilling that classic victim’s complex in them – is a guaranteed recipe for failure 9 out of 10 times. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And I am sure the people quoted in this article all have good intentions.

    • If I hear you correctly, you’re saying that “structural racism” etc. is just an excuse covering up individual decisions. I’m curious what you make of how the drop in juvenile referrals over the past decade mostly benefited white youth—that is, I’m curious how that fact can be accounted for solely by individual decisions.

      • The specifics are controversial, but basically “structural racism” refers to racial caste systems which operate at the level of groups and institutions rather than individuals. For example, whites American families tend to have more capital than black ones, largely due to historical institutions like slavery, Jim Crow laws, and white social norms. Over multiple generations, that difference in capital leads to better outcomes (education, home ownership, professional success, access to medical care, etc.) for moneyed whites than poor blacks. Obviously I’m making big generalizations here—but that’s the point: *in general,* intergenerational capital (or lack thereof) tends to perpetuate itself, despite individual exceptions. And when that capital is unevenly distributed between racial groups, those groups’ success tend to remain disparate in the long run.

        Here are some other discussions of the concept:

      • Mimi, if my simple request for a definition of what one is perceiving as “Structural Racism” to help better lead to an intelligent conversation fuels your misanthropy you have deeper issues than trolls.

        Casey, Now that I understand the definition we are working from, I’m curious what the racial disparity in the Juvenile Justice System displays when we overlay the demographic maps of King County comparing the areas below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level and populations that are higher Black or African American not Hispanic or Latino.

        When we look at areas such as South King County we begin to see populations that have socio-economic backgrounds similar to populations that are more prominently African American, say in South Seattle.

        Do these populations have different outcomes in the existing Juvenile Justice System, or are their outcomes similar but they overall represent a smaller percentage of the population in King County?

      • Who’s trolling now? What about my question said I didn’t know the definition, but was asking for clarification from the two previous commenters what “they” considered “Structural Racism”? It’s “enlightened” people like you that attack and insult that prevents open and honest discussion in diverse communities like ours. Consider that next time before attacking and insulting without provocation. Maybe your a bigger part of the problem than the solution.

    • TJ, thank you….I think your comments are spot-on. If it’s true that black youth are six times more likely than white youth to come before a judge, then the obvious questions are: Is this because blacks commit more crimes? Is it because they are disproportionately arrested? Or is it a combination of these things? I think it’s the latter, but it’s a fact that crime rates among black people are higher than among whites.

    • She is not duplicitous nor are her comments. She is very consistent. She is saying that the issues need to be addressed and the issues exist and the judges need to listen and help figure out how to cure some of the disparate incarceration. She is not offering a solution, she is not insisting on a cause. She is saying we need to figure it out. She is also saying that the center needs to be built and shouldn’t become a symbol for a small minority of fascist agitators. And that such a think shouldn’t confuse the fact that real solution need to happen. Your own bias keeps you from accepting her position possibly.

  2. I don’t want to sacrifice public safety to meet a warm and fuzzy goal of proportionality between racial groups and incarceration rates. These debates about equity need to be focused on pre-natal through middle school health and education programs, because once a group of teens starts beating the crap out of someone for their iPhone, it really doesn’t matter if locking them up (IMHO) makes the numbers incredibly disproportional.

    It just seems like some of the people against youth incarceration, in a roundabout way, are telling the rest of us to suck it up (in a ‘blame the victim’ manner) when someone gets seriously hurt and has their iPhone stolen. I should be able to walk from Broadway to my home on 25th and Thomas at 12am (as I do most nights) without trepidation, and if that means a 15 year old is behind bars for armed robbery, so be it. It’s quite likely that structural racism helped get them to such a despicable place, but being mugged shouldn’t be a “sin” tax people are expected to pay.

    We, as a society, shouldn’t tolerate the underfunding of education and health care, especially for those who reside in the racial and socioeconomic margins, but we also shouldn’t tolerate a violent 14 year old, even if that’s where they’re from.

      • Way to minimize it. I suppose that serves your purposes. Kind of like calling detention torture. Give me a break. Some of those 14 year olds are downright scary and have been more tortured in their own family than ever they will be in a detention center.

      • It’s telling that you reduced my comment in such a way.

        I would never argue that property crimes are worth harsh punishment, or incarceration. However, once violence becomes part of the crime (threatened or otherwise) then the full force of the legal system should be brought down upon the perpetrator. Putting such little value in human life should result in long term forfeiture of freedom.

        You’re basically saying that someone who robs a person at gunpoint should be more free than the victim. I think your moral compass is broken.

  3. Casey, you seem to be commenting regularly about the articles you yourself have written, and usually your comments express a certain point of view. This is a doubtful role for a “journalist” to play. Doesn’t it call into question your objectivity?

  4. Investigative journalism is one thing…..exposing bias by comment on your own articles is quite another. I get the issue about best use of financial resources. But who is asking the youth referred to the justice center what they think? There are numerous services and volunteers youth get access to via the center. Sometimes the families of these youth are not safe environments. I get the part about changing the “school to prison pipeline” track of some youth. But as said in another comment, when a 16 year old beats the crap out of someone for their i phone the crime victim does and should have rights and having a violent individual at large is not something even the communities of color in Seattle support. I don;t think it will be “activists” per se who facilitate change in society. It will be a collection of stakeholders who take an interest in and awareness of an issue.

    • While that is a nice sentiment it is also highly idealistic, impractical and just not in the realm of reality. The fact is that some teens have to be detained because we are a country of laws. The juvenile justice system is more geared to rehabilitation than ever before and is only getting better. And you don’t know if they consulted and worked with juvenile experts on this or not, such as therapists. It very well may be that in fact they did. In fact, I’m almost certain they did, being very familiar with country processes for social services.

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