Using a public health approach to reach zero youth detention

When most people think about public health, the juvenile legal system isn’t what comes to mind. That’s understandable – across the country, local health jurisdictions have had little involvement with the juvenile legal system*. That was the case in King County, too, up until November 2017, when King County Executive Dow Constantine announced Zero Youth Detention – a shared vision to not only further reduce the use of secure detention for youth in King County, but to launch this county on the journey to eliminate it – and he tasked Public Health – Seattle & King County with leading the effort.

As Zero Youth Detention program director Derrick Wheeler-Smith explains, this work is a natural fit for Public Health: “Look at the numbers of young people – particularly black and brown young men – whose lives are derailed, uprooted and cut short by the legal system. If people got sick with a disease at the same rate, and with the same negative impacts, we’d call it an epidemic and we’d want the Public Health department to take action. That’s the approach we’re taking in King County.”

While led by Public Health, Zero Youth Detention is a collaboration among the many agencies that make up the juvenile legal system, social service providers, and community organizations.

What is a “public health approach” to the juvenile legal system?

Research shows that youth have a better chance at positive adulthood when they don’t interact with the legal system. A public health approach means employing prevention and intervention strategies that eliminate the need for juvenile detention and promote the well-being of all youth. Here’s what that looks like for Zero Youth Detention:

Leading with racial equity 

Although all families involved with the juvenile legal system experience conflict and crisis, youth of color experience marginalization from social institutions, over-policing, and oppression in ways white youth don’t. As overall numbers of youth in detention in King County have decreased, racial and ethnic disparities – in other words, over-representation of youth of color and Native youth compared to white youth – has remained. Therefore, we’re leading our efforts to achieve Zero Youth Detention with racial equity. We’re calling on all stakeholders involved with the juvenile legal system to commit to identify and eliminate policies that contribute to racial disproportionality.

Despite reductions in youth detention in King County, youth of color and Native youth are 5 times more likely to be detained than white youth.

Science-based & trauma-informed

Brain science tells us that adolescence is a period when kids participate in risky behavior, and this tendency can be exacerbated if a young person has a history of trauma.

What’s more, research shows that youth detention has a profoundly negative impact on young people’s mental and physical wellbeing, their education and employment. We also know that alternatives to detention, like restorative justice, reduce recidivism and create greater satisfaction for victims compared to traditional detention.

Research shows little relationship between youth incarceration and overall youth crime in the community. King County’s experience mirrors the research, with youth felony cases decreasing at the same time as we’ve reduced the use of secure detention for youth.

We’re using this information to create evidence-based interventions and supports that hold young people accountable and put them on a path to success. Read about the first juvenile felony case in King County to be tried using a peace circle and about therapeutic alternatives to detention for youth charged with family violence.

Rimon and his mother both invested in the first King County Juvenile Court felony case to be resolved through a peacemaking circle, a process inspired by Native American traditions.

We’re also tracking data to measure our progress and where we need to do better. Check out the Zero Youth Detention Data Dashboard to follow along with our metrics.

Partnering with community

Detention removes youth from their family and trusted community. “Diversion” programs can provide supportive services to youth while keeping them in their community, helping hold youth accountable while diverting them from arrest or citation and detention.

As a part of Zero Youth Detention, we’re working with and funding community partners to expand culturally-based diversion options until these become the primary response for youth who come into contact with the legal system. Learn more by reading about Choose 180 and Creative Justice, community-based alternatives to detention receiving King County funding.

Sean Goode is Executive Director of Choose 180, a program that diverts youth away from the juvenile legal system and toward supportive mentorship.

Prevention is the cornerstone of public health, and a major component of Zero Youth Detention’s approach is intervening upstream to build on community strengths and prevent youth from ever interacting with the juvenile legal system. This means working with partners to improve school discipline practices and expanding access to behavioral health services.

Partnering with community also means supporting families of youth with legal involvement. Based on family feedback, we’re improving communication to help families navigate the legal system, providing transportation support so they can attend hearings and visit youth in detention, and adding video visitation to help families stay connected with youth in detention.

Closing thoughts

Zero Youth Detention is a bold and complex goal. “In order to be successful, we have to change the system from one that asks children ‘what did you do wrong?’ to one that builds on community strengths,” ZYD Program Director Wheeler-Smith explains. “We must prioritize youth and families in decision-making. As we center their voices and build on their strength and experience, it will help us understand what it means to truly honor and celebrate the cultural identities of the largely black and brown youth and families impacted by the legal system. Let’s make our goal for our young people the same success, health and happiness we’d want for our own children and families.”

*A note about terms: Due to historic injustices and inequities experienced in the ‘justice system’ by many traditionally underrepresented groups, Zero Youth Detention uses the term “legal system” instead of “justice system”

Learn more

Leave a Reply