The greatest gift we can give our kids is keeping them at home.

Thursday, December 21, 2023
A photograph of two children wearing winter clothing hugging in a snowy winter setting

The holidays are here, and like many of you, I’m scrambling to figure out what to get my nieces and nephews. During this time of togetherness, however, that should feel lighter, I have to admit that I feel an extra heaviness in my heart. The fact that 58 young people will be spending their holiday season just a few miles away from me at the King County Juvenile Detention Facility, away from their traditions, families, friends and community, is weighing on me. It doesn’t have to be this way. 

Youth incarceration is widely acknowledged to be harmful so why do we continue to rely on it – thinking that incarceration delivers more promise than community accountability and caretaking? Policy makers are convinced that “tough love” and punishment are necessary to ensure young people do not reoffend and fall further through the cracks. But the opposite is true: as Washington state data consistently demonstrates, incarceration hurts youth. The harms of incarceration cannot always be immediately seen and therefore can be difficult to account for. Let's dive in: 

Deprivation of community 

When a child is removed from their community, almost everything is put on pause: their schooling, their healthcare, and their relationships. This loss of connection, especially so early on in their lives, has devastating long-term impacts, as our family, friends and community play significant roles in our lives. They influence us, care for us, look out for our best interests. However, incarceration, by nature, is designed to separate people from their social networks and loved ones. This separation strains and breaks bonds, exacerbated by visitation policies which prioritize “safety” over reunification.  

It’s also important to keep in mind that when a child is removed from their home, the needs of the community, which often serve as a contributing factor to the youth’s incarceration, are likely to be ignored. This can result in a child reoffending when they return home because the root issues were never addressed to begin with. When we focus on the individual, rather than the response and needs of the community-at-large, we are allowing cycles of harm to continue. 

Juvenile records  

Juvenile court records tell the story of what a child once did – not the story of who they currently are. When the juvenile court system was first developed, confidentiality of records was top of mind to ensure that youth had meaningful opportunities for rehabilitation and second chances. This is largely due to young people being deemed as less culpable than adults because of their incomplete cognitive brain development. Today, however, juvenile records increasingly interfere with a child’s opportunity to move ahead in life and demonstrate their ability to make better choices. In 2019, the Juvenile Law Center ranked Washington among the bottom two states in the nation for confidentiality. When states like ours fail to keep juvenile records confidential, they are intentionally exposing young adults to a lifetime of hardships, including decreased likelihood of securing employment, housing, and post-secondary education.  

Economic barriers 

Did you know that children (and their families) pay fees associated with their own incarceration? Decades of research in Washington has found that court-imposed legal financial obligations (LFOs) fall disproportionately on youth of color, making it more difficult to access education, employment, and stable housing. This has devastating long-term economic impacts on the youth and their families. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, incarceration can lead to “a 52% reduction in annual earnings and little earnings growth, amounting to a loss of $500,000 over several decades.” Financial penalties are more likely to increase a child’s likelihood to reoffend and are incredibly costly to collect. In fact, Washington courts spend more money collecting fines, fees, and restitution than what they bring in. 

Imagine exiting the juvenile system hoping to turn a new leaf in your life, but thanks to your non-confidential juvenile record, the only job offer you get pays minimum wage. Your salary must cover housing, food, transportation expenses (among other necessities), and must now cover fines and fees the court imposed on you at the time of your incarceration. During your length of incarceration, your fines and fees accumulated interest, putting you in thousands of dollars of debt. There is no way you can pay your fees on your salary. You feel hopeless, out of options, and revert back to your old ways, guaranteed to make money fast. Unfortunately, this hypothetical is far too common, which is why meaningful reforms must be made to break the cycle of incarceration. 

Decreased health outcomes 

Many long-term studies have found that incarceration during adolescence leads to poorer health in adulthood, such as shorter life expectancy. Young people entering youth correctional facilities already suffer disproportionately from many physical health challenges (such as dental, vision, or hearing problems, as well as acute illnesses and injuries). They are also far more likely to have mental health problems such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicidal thoughts. Youth incarceration exacerbates these serious health problems, and without treatment and meaningful wraparound support, incarceration is much more likely to become a revolving door.  

Solutions are closer than we imagined 

The collateral damage that stems from incarceration, especially when young people are locked up as children and teenagers, is not just something that happens in the moment, but something that persists. To make meaningful strides in youth safety and reforms, we must move away from punishment and move towards reinforcement and rehabilitation. We must nourish the change we want to see, not hinder it from happening. We need to rely on what works: family and community support. So, as we move through the rest of this holiday season, remember: the greatest gift we can give our youth is keeping them at home.