Bridging the Gap Between Community and Systems

This article was originally published on Public Health’s Zero Youth Detention Blog. Zero Youth Detention (ZYD) is a shared effort and vision to reduce the use of secure detention for youth here in King County and launch the county on the journey to eliminate it.

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Willard Jimerson, Jr. grew up in Seattle’s historically African American Central District neighborhood. Raised by a loving grandmother and grandfather, young Will could never have predicted that just six weeks after his 13th birthday he’d become a ward of the state and spend the rest of his childhood in America’s adult prison system.

One fatal and catastrophic moment on a late night in 1994 changed everything. The kid who once fancied himself a charming and mischievous prankster, who loved playing arcade games and pick-up football, was gone.

Will grew up in a time when many Black families and children were reeling from the impacts of redlining, concentrated poverty, strict drug laws, and unfair sentencing practices that overwhelmed inner-city communities. Meanwhile, academic and political leaders alike pushed racist rhetoric that painted children as domestic terrorists and unjustly justified America going to war against it’s self-imposed “Underclass” and their inhumane “Superpredator” offspring. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act passed in 1994, legalizing the inequitable and inhumane treatment of Black and Brown people in the judicial system.

It was in this social and political context that Will went before the King County Superior Court and was convicted of the murder of 14-year old Jamie Lynn Wilson. In 1994, at 13 years old, Will was one of the youngest people to be tried as an adult in Washington State history.

During sentencing, the judge agreed with the King County Prosecutors Office that he lacked remorse, was “devoid of humanity”, and on the path to becoming a violent career criminal. The judge and prosecutors decided the maximum 8-year juvenile sentence was not punishment enough. Even though a psychologist testified on Will’s behalf and described him as an emotionally fragile boy, abandoned by both parents, who should go into a juvenile system to help him, the court still sentenced him to…Read More