“Sky so high, I can lift you up, Together we can get there.”
These lyrics are to a song that won’t appear on top 40 radio, though their quality may suggest otherwise. It’s a track with a lot more gravitas than the latest Drake hit, with stories recounting struggle and opportunity over a bass-heavy beat.
Twelve of King County’s youth wrote and produced the tune at the 2312 Gallery in Belltown. They met every Tuesday and Thursday for 12 weeks to create music, poetry and visual arts.
This was one of four groups of young people who participated in the pilot year of Creative Justice, a program that provides an art-based alternative to youth detention in King County. Young people who have been in contact with the juvenile court system are eligible to participate in the program.
All participants receive community service hours for their time at Creative Justice in addition to court-related benefits such as early probation termination.
After a successful first year, Creative Justice is gearing up for a fruitful 2016 with new mentors and fresh faces to use inventive solutions to push back against juvenile detention. This year Creative Justice has added a case manager to increase capacity and allow more time to be spent cultivating relationships with students.
“We have seen the research that shows locking a kid up for a crime doesn’t make the community safer, and it actually does the opposite of that,” explained Aaron Counts, the lead engagement officer and program coordinator for Creative Justice. “It further isolates those young people that are more vulnerable and pushes them away from the safety net that a strong and supportive community can provide.”
The program creates that safety net by bringing 12 young people together two or three times a week. Creative Justice offers four sessions of the program each year. Each session is hosted by galleries and community spaces and run by mentor artists of various disciplines.
Creative Justice grew out of 4Culture, the “cultural services agency” for King County. The organization is located in Pioneer Square and provides funding and support for artistic and cultural programs across the county. Funding for Creative Justice comes from 4Culture, in addition to grants from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA).
One percent of funds generated from the controversial renovation of King County’s Children and Family Justice Center are dedicated towards the arts. Jordan Howland and Diana Falchuk of 4Culture met in 2013 to discuss ways the organization could use the money to further alternatives to detention. After brainstorming and discussing with local organizers and activists working against youth detention, Creative Justice was born.
Chief Juvenile Judge Wesley Saint Clair, of the King County Superior Court, supports the program, which offers an alternative to detention and sanctions.
Defense attorneys, social workers or probation counselors refer youth to the program, Creative Justice then reaches out to the youth. But Creative Justice receives more applications than it can accommodate, and a waiting list for sessions illustrates the demand for this program in King County communities.
Multidisciplinary artist Shontina Vernon served as a mentor artist during the first session of Creative Justice in early 2015. Vernon’s work includes film, performance art and music. She weaves elements of juvenile justice throughout her work. Mentoring for Creative Justice is a natural extension of that and hits a personal note for Vernon as well.
“It was something I understood from the inside so I had a particular way to think about because I had been a juvenile offender,” Vernon said.
“These young people are coming from environments where lots of things are being thrown at them daily, whether they’re high violence areas or in families thrown apart by mass incarceration,” Vernon stated. “Just engaging them in the experiences they’re having on the outside does enormous help to give them space to talk about the things they’re experiencing.”
While art takes center stage in programming, sessions also involve conversations regarding the role systematic racism plays in incarceration. Mentor artists undergo trainings regarding racism, gender and sexuality. Each session ends with a performance or presentation that reflects the group’s experiences and discussions.
Over the past 15 years, King County has seen a significant decrease in juvenile offender filings and referrals for youth from the ages of 10 to 17. Yet the percentage of African American youth in the juvenile justice system has increased.
The program adds an interesting layer to the ongoing conversation about youth detention in Seattle and King County. Seattle City Council voted in a September resolution to end youth detention in the city — despite the construction of King County’s Children and Family Justice Center, which includes a secure detention component.
The Seattle City Council set aside $600,000 in the city budget for 2016 that will go to community-led alternatives to incarceration. The funding addresses concerns activists have been calling attention to for years: that the United States has created a school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately leads more youth of color into jail.
“We have to have the courage to say what we’re doing is not working,” Saint Clair said. “Let’s not be afraid to try these different processes just because it makes people uncomfortable.”
Creative Justice offers one such alternative.
“Any time that you can take someone from being a passive recipient to having ownership in their life’s outcomes then it’s a positive thing,” Saint Clair said.
“Any time you are able to share with someone that their vision and sense of self is one that’s appropriate and appreciated, it’s something that we need to cherish and enhance and grow.”