When Judge Wesley Saint Clair was named Chief Juvenile Judge for King County Superior Court in 2012, he saw it as an opportunity to make a difference for the community and particularly for young people of color in the community.
“When I came to Juvenile Court I felt that was a shift in the alignment of the stars and the moons because I think there was a conversation occurring that’s going to really allow us to manifest change in a concrete fashion,” Judge Saint Clair said. “It’s been accelerated at this point in time, I still have that feeling.”
Judge Saint Clair is focused on challenging, disrupting and ending the systems that have resulted in and perpetuated racial disproportionality in the criminal justice system.
“Is that really what we want it [the criminal justice system] to do, especially to young people, when the impacts of what we do often result in generational impacts, not only for the person who is appearing before you but for their children, and for their children?” Judge Saint Clair said. “How do we begin the process of disrupting that in an appropriate way?”
The issue goes well beyond the juvenile justice system and Judge Saint Clair encourages us to look system-wide to see how society is failing young people of color. This includes child welfare and dependency cases where children are removed from the home.
“Part of the conversation has been around ‘let’s blame the kids, let’s blame the families,’ and my pushback is that it’s not families that are broken – there are dysfunctional families that have a variety of challenges that oftentimes are not of their own making – but what’s really broken are the systems that allow it to be perpetuated without having any sort of will to change it.”
Judge Saint Clair views the work that King County is doing in juvenile justice reform as a “petri dish” of people willing to try different things.”
“My hope is, what should be happening is, that this should be the petri dish and then it moves to the adult side, and becomes part of a true criminal justice reform. Because what we’re doing here, what we see in a microscopic fashion at Juvenile Court, is happening at a macro level in the rest of our justice system.”
Progress is being made. The Average Daily Juvenile Detention Population fell from 187 in 1998 to 51 in 2016, but the number of African American youth in detention remains disproportionately high. Black youth make up approximately 10 percent of the county’s total youth population, but they make up almost half of the detention population.
Two of the initiatives Judge Saint Clair is pursuing to tackle disproportionality are disrupting the “school-to-prison pipeline” by providing effective alternatives to school suspensions and detention, and embracing the concept of restorative justice, where offenders go through mediated sessions to fully understand the impacts of their actions directly from victims and find the community-based support they need to stay out of the criminal justice system in the future.
Judge Saint Clair believes that when the new Children and Family Justice Center opens in 2019 it will allow the County to expand this type of programming, pursue more alternatives to detention, and provide a space that helps young people and families learn, grow and heal.
“I was in a community meeting last night and someone asked ‘Judge, why are you guys building a new building?’ And I said ‘have you been to our building? Have you seen how disrespectful it is?’ Our building sends vibes that say ‘we don’t care about you families or children.’ Because we’re giving you this raggedy building, where you can’t drink the water out of the water fountain, that leaks, where you are forced to have private conversations in the lobby because there’s not enough space for you to have those behind closed doors.’ So I think when you look at what’s happening it [the new building] will give us a new framework to keep evolving the change model.”
Asked about what legacy he hopes to leave behind when he one day steps down from the bench, Judge Saint Clair replied, “I guess it would look like ‘Thank goodness Judge Saint Clair was here because he really set the foundation for us to move to a new place.”