Youth Services Center vote endorses effective new approaches to juvenile justice
King County voters did not just tax themselves to rebuild the county's Youth Services Center. They affirmed and empowered efforts to shed antiquated approaches to juvenile crime right along with the system's old buildings.
Seattle Times editorial columnist
The $210 million levy passed by voters this week to pay for rebuilding King County's Youth Services Center was never about jail beds.
The center houses a multilayered approach to juvenile justice rightly credited with a trend of fewer, not more, young men and women held under lock and key.
Spacious new digs for an array of programs serving juvenile offenders and abused children is the focus of the nine-year levy. County voters are making a smart and critical investment.
But I want to call attention to all that is changing in addition to the buildings. King County is part of a national shift from punishment and rehabilitation, to counseling and mentoring for kids stumbling their way into adulthood.
A dozen therapeutic, educational and employment-training programs proved by data, science and experience are effectively battling powerful societal elements that contribute to juvenile crime. Two public schools are on site, one for teens in lockup and one for students who haven't been successful in traditional public schools.
Where there used to be 187 young people in King County's detention center on any given night, now there are typically only 70. Other promising statistics:
- Charges filed against juveniles have dropped by 70 percent.
- Juveniles held in detention dropped by 63 percent
- The number of young offenders committed to state institutions for long-term care is down by 70 percent.
This is partly about dollars and cents. It is cheaper to counsel, educate and help young people through their struggles than to pay their prison costs down the road. But the holistic, more-supportive and less-punitive route is also the moral thing to do.
"We have all kinds of human potential going unfulfilled," says Mark Wirschem, juvenile treatment services manager for the center. "The majority of them can't see themselves completing school on time or at all."
Ignore the predictable response that juvenile justice is going soft on crime. This is about approaching crime in smarter, more effective ways.
For our most dangerous young offenders, there's a jail cot with their name on it. But a growing body of evidence has me convinced of the damaging impact of incarceration on young people. That's why King County can propose with confidence a detention center smaller than the current one. With the detention population more than halved over the last 13 years, public policy and critical resources rightly shift to support systems, from infancy to adulthood.
The most effective crime-prevention programs start early. Think about the nurses sent by the Seattle-King County Public Health department into the homes of low-income pregnant women to offer prenatal care and early parenting support. Child abuse is the single greatest predictor of substance abuse and mental-health problems. Two-thirds of King County children in foster care or in some other areas of child welfare will end up in the juvenile-justice system. Good parenting is key and it is learned with family and community support.
All of these efforts help reduce recidivism rates and lower taxpayer criminal-justice costs, a point driven home in a 2011 study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy
Next, the conversation needs to tackle the racial disparities in the system. While juvenile crime is down across all racial groups, youths of color are five times more likely than white kids to be placed in detention. Explanations about kids of color being more "bad" do not hold up against national studies showing those kids no more likely to commit crimes than any other group.
Tackling this dilemma has already begun through the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, a national project with the goal of reducing the number of kids inappropriately or unnecessarily detained.
Voters earlier this week affirmed and empowered King County's efforts to not just shed antiquated buildings, but to continue moving away from outdated approaches to juvenile crime.
Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Follow her on Twitter <a class="" href="http://www.twitter.com/lkvarner/">@lkvarner.</a> Her email address is <a class="" href="mailto:email@example.com">firstname.lastname@example.org.</a>