Editor’s note: This is the third of five blog posts taking a deeper look at the racial disparities in our communities, from education to juvenile crime and homelessness. Read more.
Fewer kids are being referred to King County courts each year – and most of these disappearing defendants are white.
Last year 2,298 white juveniles were referred to the courts compared to 5,107 in 2002. That’s a 55 percent decrease. Black youth saw a 21 percent drop in referrals over the same period.
An analysis of the juvenile prosecutions shows that black kids are more likely to be referred to the courts, more likely to be formally charged, less likely to have their cases diverted, and more likely to be sentenced to secure detention or tried as adults.
“Juvenile crime is down across the country,” said King County Juvenile Court Judge Wesley Saint Clair. “But we just don’t see the same reductions for youth of color.”
One reason for the drop is because of a change in policy. Seattle police officers now call and receive clearance before dropping off juveniles at King County’s Youth Services Center (Juvenile Detention), Saint Clair said, leading to fewer children being taken into custody for minor crimes such as shoplifting.
But Marcel Purnell, Community Police Commission member and Youth Undoing Institutional Racism representative, believes the presence of uniformed officers in public schools inadvertently funnels more youth of color into a school to jail or prison pipeline.
“Once you have police contact, a traumatic experience in and of itself, you’re more likely to have police contact again,” Purnell said. “And you’re also more likely to have contact with the juvenile-justice system.”
Youth advocates worry that the problems with racial disparities will worsen once King County’s new Children and Family Justice Center opens with 174 cells (completion is set for 2019). The average daily population for the current juvenile-detention facility is just 68.
In mid-November, more than a dozen people gathered at a biweekly meeting of the No New Jim Crow Seattle Campaign to voice their concerns.
“There’s going to be increased pressure to fill those additional beds,” said group member Mary Paterson.
King County wants to explore those concerns, said Marcus Stubblefield, systems integration coordinator for King County Executive Dow Constantine.
“It doesn’t help to incarcerate young people, they get worse,” Stubblefield said during that November meeting. “But some people need to be away for the sake of the community.”
Dustin Washington, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s (AFSC) Community Justice Program, doesn’t see it that way.
“Money should be spent on the front end, keeping kids out of jail through restorative justice, improving schools, and providing young people opportunities to make money in a healthy, legal way,” Washington said. “We have to look at impact, not intent. Racism is embedded within institutions. The intent may be neutral, but if impact is racially disproportionate, then we need to change the policy.”
Lael Henterly is a freelance writer and a journalism student at the University of Washington Department of Communcation.