As a young man, Heirius Howell spent a lot of time behind bars. He was locked up so often that he can’t remember exactly how many different times he saw the inside of King County Juvenile Detention Facility, but he guesses somewhere around 14.
Now 26, Howell says the pathway into the criminal justice system for most kids starts just like his did: they aren’t getting the attention they need at home because their parents are struggling mentally or financially. The kids go to school and act out, and the eventual result is incarceration.
“If you have enough money to build a new youth jail, you have enough money to change a kid’s life,” Howell says. “Instead you lock them up. You’re telling them you don’t care about them… and you don’t want to take the time to find out what they need.”
He’s talking about the contract for development of a new “Children and Family Justice Center,” approved by the King County Council last month.
The Council’s unanimous vote came after hours of opposing testimony by activists sharing positions similar to Howell’s — that arresting and detaining youth just perpetuates a vicious cycle, and that the $210 million tax levy approved by voters in 2012 for the construction of the new jail would be better spent on things like 1,000 full-ride scholarships to the University of Washington or by feeding 8,000 families of four for a year.
Speaking from experience, Howell says he believes the new youth jail will continue to reinforce criminalization of at-risk and troubled youth.
Although he was first locked up at the age of ten, Howell’s struggle started long before that. When his family first moved to Seattle from Chicago and they had to live on the streets and in shelters for five years before finally making it into transitional housing.
A 2011 study by the National Center for Juvenile Justice (NCJJ) found that about 70 percent of youth arriving at the doors of King County Juvenile Detention Center already had some type of interaction with services provided by the child welfare system, like foster care or child protection assistance.
According to the study, this subset of juvenile detainees faced a higher recidivism rates and was more likely to spend longer periods of time inside the facility.
Howell believes his life would be significantly different if he could have avoided juvenile detention to begin with.
When the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance allowing the construction of the youth jail last October, Council Member Kshama Sawant, was the only member to vote against it. She’s argued that the system is “stacked against Black youth.” Citing data collected from King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention by advocacy group EPIC, Sawant said two-thirds of youth booked in 2012 were classified as people of color and 42% of those incarcerated children were Black, even though Blacks make up less than 10% of the people living in King County.
“If these were the statistics for White youth, we would be talking about an urgent crisis,” she said.
Sawant isn’t the first one to point out that the King County justice system appears biased against racial minorities. The NCJJ study found that Black and Native American youth with a history in the welfare system were “75 percent and 79 percent respectively” more likely to end up back in the corrections facility than those of other races, whether or not they had a history with the child welfare system.
The study recommends that at-risk youth in King County need “earlier, more effective and more timely intervention” to halt their advancement into the system.
Shaakirrah Sanders is an associate professor of law at the University of Idaho College of Law and a former public defender for King County, where she worked with many young men in situations similar to Howell’s.
“For a long time there have been allegations that young men, young men of color in particular, are not treated the same in the criminal justice system overall,” said Sanders. “They’re punished more harshly for misdemeanors and statistics appear to make it clear when it comes to investigation and apprehension that young African-Americans and Latinos are pursued more harshly.”
Howell can recall a time span when he was 12 years old where every week for two months he was at the detention center to receive punishment or go to court. Not only does he feel it wasn’t effective, but his record has haunted him into his adult life.
“All those Assault 4’s… They just piled up,” he said. “I had a cop at the precinct tell me my record was as thick as a Sunday paper.”
In 2004 at the age of 15, Howell says he was admitted to King County Jail on robbery charges with a bail set at $100,000. He believes his lengthy record from juvenile detention weighed on his case during trial. He says he was found guilty for being an accomplice to a robbery because wouldn’t tell authorities who had actually committed the crime.
After four and a half years he was released at the age of 19, only to be booked again six months later, he said. Another robbery charge led to another five and a half years behind bars.
Because he was in the system from the age of 15 to 19 and didn’t have an opportunity to get any work experience, Howell believes he never really had a fighting chance.
“You don’t teach someone what they need when they’re inside, but then you expect them to get out and be better. It doesn’t work like that,” he said.
Now he’s been out since March of 2014 and plans to keep it that way. Still, he feels the system is working against him. Because of his record he says he can’t find a steady job. And while he has changed for the better, he doesn’t credit it to his time behind bars.
“It was not the key to a jail cell that changed him, it was the key to his heart,” said Howell’s pastor, Doug Wheeler.
Wheeler works at Christian Restoration Center Church of Seattle. He is a former parole officer and one of the developers behind Program 180, designed to keeps about 350 youth facing low-level misdemeanors out of the system each year by helping them “make a 180-degree change in the direction of their own lives.”
Wheeler has known Howell for 17 years and watched his transformation first hand. He said the support Howell received from his community during his time in jail made him realize his value and inspired him to change.
Wheeler also believes King County needs more than a new detention facility to help reform at-risk youth.
“What we really need are programs to keep kids out of jail in the first place,” he said. “We need to give them a pathway to correct their behavior, not a lock up facility. We need a treatment facility.”
Based on her experience as a public defender, Sanders agrees.
“If there were more resources towards… programs that don’t emphasize in incarceration, there would be fewer juveniles in the system,” said Sanders. “Diversion courts emphasizing in rehabilitation more than punishment would be helpful in preventing recidivism or committing offenses in the first place.”
County officials insist that construction of the new youth facility is moving forward without a doubt. But activists are still fighting it.
On Saturday, March 28th, they’re planning to hold a “People’s Tribunal on the US Juvenile Justice System” at Seattle University. The youth-led event will feature workshops, performances and testimony for and against the new youth jail from politicians, developers and community members.