March 2015 Bar Bulletin
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From the Desk of the Presiding Judge

Racial Disparity in Juvenile Justice System Fosters Dialogue

By Judge Susan Craighead


Readers of this column will recall the views I expressed last month about the tactics of the opponents of the Children and Family Justice Center. While I remain very troubled by these tactics, on reflection I must acknowledge that these passionate voices have given Superior Court the gift of the opportunity to involve the community in trying to address the problem of racial disproportionality in the juvenile justice system. On behalf of my entire bench, I outlined a new effort to find solutions in a speech at the Thurgood Marshall Tribute February 12th, reprinted below.

"On behalf of the Court, today I come to you with a bold statement the likes of which you do not often hear from government. We are sorry we have not been listening well enough to our community. Some people are shouting at us because they do not feel they are being heard. Many other people in our community may not be shouting, but they may perceive the County as tone deaf. We must sit down with them and listen. And we need to speak frankly about the institutional racism and racial disparity that persist in our juvenile justice system.

In 2014 in King County, for the first time, the number of referrals for African-American youth exceeded the number of referrals for white youth. More than half the cases in King County Juvenile Court were filed against African-American youth, while they make up just under 10 percent of the population. On any given day in 2014, 51 percent of the youth held in detention were African-American. As a county, we have done much great work to reduce the number of Juvenile Court filings and the number of youths in detention by 72 percent in 12 years. But these efforts have disproportionately benefited white youth. Youth of color remain ensnared in our juvenile justice system.

This situation is utterly untenable. The number of youth in the juvenile justice system is going down, but the percentage of African-American youth is going up, despite the work of many people of good will in county government. Racial disproportionality and the vestiges of racism have no place in our justice system and we will continue to do everything in our power to eliminate them.

As leaders of our justice system, we must take responsibility for our role in allowing racial disproportionality to be a fact of life in the juvenile justice system. We deeply regret this. And today we ask for the community's help to make things right.

At the same time, we have been hearing many voices who are concerned not only about racial disparity in our juvenile justice system, but who also believe it is wrong to incarcerate juveniles at all. These voices have turned the replacement juvenile court building into a symbol for all that is wrong with the juvenile justice system. While it has not always been easy hearing from these voices, they challenge us to do better.

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