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Can justice be served without putting kids behind bars?

Credit: Celia Berk

Last week, the Seattle City Council resolved to end the practice of putting young lawbreakers behind bars. Resolution 31614, which passed unanimously, is a commitment to “eliminate the need to detain or incarcerate youth” by cutting off the “school-to-prison pipeline” and finding alternatives to incarceration.

This is a big win for EPIC (Ending the Prison Industrial Complex), the organization that is spearheading the campaign against King County’s plan to build a new, $210 million-dollar juvenile detention center. In a letter addressed to King County Councilmembers, EPIC and its partners – which include the People’s Institute Northwest, Youth Undoing Institutional Racism, European Dissent, the NAACP, and others — outlined their strategy: “We seek to redirect funding away from the mass incarceration of youth of color and towards community-based prevention, intervention and diversion services and programs.”

But what might those services and programs look like, and can we really find ways to keep kids out of jail? EPIC and other community groups are out to answer those questions.

In March, EPIC hosted a tribunal, putting King County on trial for perpetuating the school-to-prison pipeline, which removes marginalized youth from a path to graduation and puts them on a path toward the criminal justice system. The practice leads to a disproportionate number of people of color behind bars, according to a recent report on race and Washington’s criminal justice system from the Seattle University law school. In Washington State, black people make up only 4.1 percent of the total population, but 18 percent of the prison population.

RestorativeJustice4You might have expected the tribunal, hosted by Seattle University, to be a gathering of angry and frustrated people holding the county to blame. On the contrary, it drew a crowd of nearly 700 people who came together not simply to vent, but to discuss the ways in which their lives have been impacted by the “prison Industrial complex” — and how to enact sustainable change in their communities.

“We recognized that we wanted to dismantle that [existing] system, but we needed to fill it with something as well,” said Senait Brown, co-chair of EPIC and political director of the group BlackOut WA.

Brown explained that this strategy originated from a conversation EPIC members had with activist Aaron Dixon, a former captain of the Seattle Black Panthers. “He [Dixon] was like, ‘You need to focus 25 percent of your energy on dismantling and fighting the [existing] structures. But that’s not life-giving, that’s destruction. What’s humanizing? What are you building?’”

The tribunal was the unveiling of a larger initiative called the People’s Plan for Community Justice, which lays out a blueprint for a broad movement of social change within Seattle. An excerpt from the plan describes some of the core philosophies behind it, which aligns with the national Black Lives Matter movement. “These initiatives are about supporting and sustaining local Black spaces, Black capacity, Black-led organizing, and Black liberation.”

RestorativeJustice3Central to the plan is the concept of “restorative justice.” Restorative justice differs from our current approach to justice in that the objective is not to punish anyone who has broken the law. Instead, the goal is to bring the community together to work with both the person who has committed the offense and the victims of the offense to repair damages and forge a path forward. Offenders are held accountable for their actions, but they’re given a chance to rectify their actions, rather than being automatically exiled from the community.

One of the most notable examples of restorative justice is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established in South Africa after apartheid. The goal was to bring healing to the country by creating a process where human rights violations were made transparent, forcing abusers to take responsibility for their actions and make reparations for their victims.

To test how the concept can be used in our community today, EPIC has partnered with the Rainier Beach Action Coalition to create and pilot what they call “community restorative justice circles.” They got the idea from other cities across the country and formed an alliance with RJOY (Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth) a community-based organization founded by Fania Davis (sister of activist Angela Davis). Organizers from Seattle flew to Oakland to see the program first-hand.

“When we talk about ‘no detention’ or ‘no incarceration,’ someone always brings up violent crime,” said local artist and activist Jerrell Davis. But “we’ve already proven that our current system doesn’t work. It doesn’t rehabilitate them. It doesn’t rehumanize them. Recidivism is at like 60 percent. People go back to prison for the same thing they went in for.”

As the nation with the largest prison population in the world — over 2 million people and growing — something has to shift, Davis said. “I am hopeful, especially knowing that people believe in [restorative justice]. There’s a lot of merit to it. I think it will take a lot of work to actualize, but I think if we work together we can do it.”

RestorativeJustice2Last week, organizers from RJOY visited Seattle to provide trainings for teachers and administrators from Seattle Public Schools as well as King County officials on how to better partner with these communities.

“The administration won’t support it unless they are put through a process where they can see the merit in it,” explained Davis, who attended the training. He was most impacted by the idea that it could be possible to end incarceration. “We would need a lot of top-down support in order for it to have its fullness. It’s not only about the people in the room, but about the people making policy.”

Though the city council resolution is a great start, it is only a gesture toward change, not a guarantee. And there are many obstacles. In addition to finding common values on which to base communication there is also the challenge of making sure that the people who would best be served by restorative justice circles, like at-risk youth or ex-offenders, have access to them. And of course there is the question of whether or not these circles are equipped to deal with more extreme circumstances.

Still, there is a growing interest in these practices. EPIC hosted a town hall meeting in August at Urban Impact Seattle. It was an opportunity for neighbors to get to know one another, to learn more about restorative justice, and to brainstorm how best to apply it within our community. More than 150 Rainier Beach residents turned out, eager to learn how they could participate in restorative justice circles.

More efforts are also underway to keep young people out of the criminal justice system. RBAC received a grant through the City of Seattle to conduct research that identified five areas in Rainier Beach where crime has been most prevalent. Since then, Davis has helped implement a program called Greeter Corners. They analyzed the crime data and took it upon themselves to do in-person intervention by having pop-up community engagement booths rotating through Rainier Beach’s hot spots to provide youth with alternative ways to spend their time.

With plans and programs springing up across Seattle, it is clear that communities of color are coming together to create solutions that no one else seems to be creating for them. With restorative justice as a galvanizing theme, organizers are creating more than policies and resolutions but an actual movement.

In the words of Sam Cooke, “A Change is gonna come.”

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