Thursday, August 5

Awake to (in)Justice

Today, I am giving the following testimony in Olympia, Washington. I thought I'd share it here. I honestly believe that we are all called to confront injustice where we see it. I am called, in particular, to confront injustice with youth affected by incarceration. I often see the best and worst that the world can throw in that situation. I see the beauty of the divine in every young person's face that I meet - that child created as a beloved, whole, reflection of the divine. I see the complete loss of Beauty and Love when politics and self-interest over-ride the call to protect our children.

Where do you see Beauty? Where have you felt the lack of Love? What (in)justice is calling to you?

Testimony for HB 1651 – Youth Opportunity Act

Good morning Mister Chair and members of the committee. For the record, my name is Reverend Terri Stewart. I am the Director and Founder of the Youth Chaplaincy Coalition, a Task Force of the Church Council of Greater Seattle and I am a United Methodist Pastor. I am here today in support of House Bill 1651 because it is both the right thing to do ethically and fiscally. Creating a larger pool of tax paying citizens is always in the best interest of the state and HB 1651 will do that by making juvenile records confidential, enabling youth to more easily let go of past mistakes and walk into a brighter, stable future.

Currently, we offer youth the ability to seal their records. Under this method, there are three things, at least, that can go wrong .

  1. Not all young people between the ages 18-23 are organized enough to seal their records.
  2. Not all young people can afford attorneys or afford their restitution.
  3. And why can they not afford attorneys? Because they have been unable to get a job, find adequate housing, or get admitted to a great college because their record is open and known by all. It is a shame. Two youth applying to the same University. One from Washington, the other from Alabama. They have the same juvenile record. But because Alabama has confidential records, the youth from Alabama automatically has an advantage. That seems quite unfair.

In addition to the complication of sealing their record, there is the fact that their juvenile records are open at any time—filed charges, dismissed charges, arrests, everything. In fact, it is so open, that I can walk into the county juvenile detention center, go to the records department, and look-up a child’s record on the computer that is sitting on the counter available for everyone to use. Not only can I do that, but anyone can do that. All you need is a name. So if you are a pimp, it is sad to say, you can go right into the courts and check up on your “girls.” That is sad and completely defeats the intended purpose of our juvenile detention systems-rehabilitation and reintegration.

Additionally, it costs about $20,000 per year in national estimates, to incarcerate one youth for one year. That is a large sum! But it costs even more to incarcerate an adult. Adult incarceration costs from $26,224 to $41,014 per inmate per year depending on the institution type in 2011, Washington state dollars. When we do not do our best to set our incarcerated youth up for success, we are guaranteeing that we will be spending these additional dollars on a large percentage of youth. Why? Because with a criminal record that is available to all subscribers, even sealing their record is pointless. It is a bit like putting the cart before the horse. We sell juvenile records to subscribers, they get turned down for jobs, then we ask them to seal their records so they can get good jobs but their record is already out there. This is the electronic age. This data just does not disappear. Years later, the effect can go deep. Ashamed of your juvenile record and don’t come clean on an application? You can be denied or fired after the fact.

None of this is good for our youth. And none of this is good for Washington. Having confidential records promotes second chances and diminishes the certainty that youth will simply age out of detention and age into adult prisons. It is time for a change. And this is change that is good for Washington.

The Journal of Criminology and Public Policy, Volume 7, #3, 2008, poses the problem this way:

Judicious criminal justice policy strikes a balance that maximizes both public safety and the rights and liberties of individual citizens. When new technologies or innovations tip the balance in one direction or another, policy makers consider taking measures to recalibrate the scales.

We have reached such a critical policy juncture in the area of criminal background checks and we have a rare opportunity! We don’t need to choose between individual rights and public safety. HB 1651 is that bill seldom seen – it improves individual rights and the state’s financial bottom line.

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo by Brian Yap (葉):
cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo by Brian Yap (葉):

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