A New Youth Jail Would Be a Public Health Problem

King County claims a new youth jail would improve public health. Experts in the field strongly disagree.

Public health, or what we as a society do collectively to assure the conditions for people to be healthy, is an exemplary framework for approaching the issue of youth detention. Although certain executives would have you believe otherwise, constructing a new youth jail is not—in any sense—a public health approach. As public health professionals, we can assure you that investing in community-owned options based on reduction, reformation, replacement, and reinvestment, is the real public health approach.

King County Executive Dow Constantine recently moved oversight of his new $210 million youth jail to Public Health – Seattle & King County, stating, “By using a Public Health model, we will be able to do more. This is not just about services for youth while in detention, but changing policies and systems to keep youth from returning to detention, and avoid having contact in the justice system in the first place.”

Dow’s statement comes years after we have already seen effective health equity and community-based public health practice modeled by the same anti-racist community organizers who’ve been pushing to defund the new youth jail (and receiving push-back for it). They want to abolish a model that neither promotes health and well-being, nor “rehabilitates” children. If Dow and the County are now advocating for public health, they need to follow the lead of the community and divest from models that simply don’t work.

Detention does not make youth or communities healthier: youth who’ve been detained have a three-times higher risk of disease, disability, social problems, cognitive impairment, and early death than non-detained youth. Detention also destroys youth’s ties to supportive adults, who serve as critical determinant of life-long health and help prevent childhood trauma. Strong social supports can also reduce the rates of diabetes, heart disease, and asthma. Black, brown, and Native communities disproportionately suffer from these diseases, just as they experience higher rates of incarceration here in King County. Youth jails perpetuate these racial health inequities.

A recent Harvard Kennedy School study outlines a 4-point plan for a true public health approach to youth detention: reduce, reform, replace, and reinvest.

Reduce: We can start addressing youth detention by enacting statutes that limit categories of youth who are charged with detention center placement. California and Texas limited youth corrections and reallocated savings to counties for community-based juvenile justice options—both states experienced marked declines in youth incarceration and offending.

Reform: We can reach King County’s goal of zero-youth detention if we transform culture, structure, and decision-making processes to enable the entire justice system to focus on achieving positive outcomes for every youth. Programmatic and practice reforms, such as expanding dispositional options (especially community-based, family-centered programs), would ensure youth are matched to the best services available, including diverting them when no formal court procedure is necessary.

Replace & Reinvest: Do away with the youth detention center and give youth voices in their own treatment options to inform general policy and practice. Youth Undoing Institutional Racism and Ending the Prison Industrial Complex have shared this message in King County for almost a decade. Reinvestment from facilities and keeping more youth at home while using healthier approaches will save dollars that can be invested where it really counts – in black, brown, and Native communities.

As the Harvard study states: “Seldom in American policy are incentives and imperatives so closely aligned — youth development, fiscal prudence, and community safety would be far better served by closing every last youth prison and replacing these factories of failure with pathways to success for all youth.”

This, this is a public health approach to juvenile justice.

Dow, if you truly stand for zero-youth detention, you need to take part in undoing this system. You need to undo your jail.

Omid Bagheri and Anne K. Althauser are organizers with No New Youth Jail Coalition. Bagheri serves as faculty at UW School of Public Health, and Althauser earned her Master’s in Public Health from UW.