King County youth detention center moves forward despite opposition

As community criticism of the project mounts, King County tries to take a middle road.

As construction moves ahead on the new King County youth detention center at 12th and Alder in the Central District, anti-incarceration activists continue the fight against the controversial project.

The $210 million youth detention center—which will replace the current facility in central Seattle—will feature 112 inmate beds and additional court rooms. King County officials refer to it as the “children and family justice center,” while the activists opposing its construction have dubbed it a “youth jail.” Ever since funding for the project was approved by the voters back in 2012, it has been one of the most contentious issues in Seattle politics, generating a sustained campaign of public protests and legal actions.

Activists argue that the new facility will perpetuate the disproportionate incarceration of youth of color, that youth detention is psychologically harmful to juveniles, and that the county should invest in alternatives to detention. County officials, on the other hand, claim that the existing, aging detention center—parts of which date back to 1952—needs to be replaced and that overall youth incarceration has decreased over the years. (Minority youth are still disproportionately overrepresented among incarcerated youth in the detention center, however.)

At a July 17 press conference held in front of the project construction site, No New Youth Jail Coalition members touted the growing number of local organizations that oppose the new facility and decried the county’s decision to push ahead with construction.

“We’ve sustained a campaign for six years and we are now at a point where 120 organizations—and still counting—to date have signed on to a moratorium saying that King County must stop building this building, that we must move into a period of redesign, and we must put something in place that heals and does not do harm,” activist and former mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver said at the event. “There is a growing consensus in King County that Dow’s agenda to build this jail actually reflects Trump’s agenda. That it reflects the same ideas of perpetuating a racist system that is built on the backs of black and brown bodies.”

Elected officials—including Seattle City Council member Mike O’Brien and Federal City Council member Jesse Johnson—and representatives from organizations such as the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, Columbia Legal Services and environmental advocacy group Got Green also stood by anti-incarceration activists to condemn the project.

“What we have realized—and what brain science now realizes—is that every person that is institutionalized is harmed; that in and of itself, locking someone up is inhumane,” said Merf Enham, executive director of Columbia Legal Services. “I call on Dow Constantine and our organizations to stop building this facility.”

Research has supported the notion that youth detention is psychologically damaging and ultimately counterproductive to public safety goals. A 2011 study by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (a subdivision of the U.S. Department of Justice) found that long-term incarceration of youth does not reduce the chance that they will reoffend. Other studies have shown that detention exacerbates existing mental and behavioral health conditions in youth, and, in fact, increases odds of recidivism.

Malou Chavez, deputy director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said at the press conference that the public should view the new youth detention center in the same negative light as the federal government’s incarceration of undocumented immigrants. “Let’s extend that same outrage and support to [youths] currently incarcerated and separated from their families here, and not just [the ones] in ICE custody,” she said.

Attempts by activists to halt the project through the courts have had mixed results. Following the passage of the 2012 tax levy financing the project, years of continued public protest ensued. In 2016, Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC)—an anti-prison advocacy group that has been aggressively campaigning against the project—sued King County, arguing that the county misled voters in their description of the 2012 tax levy.

The case has gone all the way to the state Supreme Court, and could pose serious financial problems for the county if the levy is invalidated. According to emails obtained by anti-youth jail activists through a public records request, King County Budget Director Dwight Dively told county staff on that if the county were to lose this case before the state Supreme Court, they would have to turn to bonds for financing, and the annual debt service payments would have a “potentially catastrophic” effect on the county’s general fund, which is already spread thin. (Alex Fryer, a spokesperson for Executive Constantine, declined to comment on the emails or on potential future financing issues.)

In 2017, EPIC also filed an appeal with the Seattle Hearing Examiner’s Office to revoke a master use permit issued to King County by the city of Seattle in December 2016, which allowed them to go ahead with construction of the facility. If the permit had been invalidated, construction on the project would’ve ground to a halt. (The facility is currently slated to open in 2019.)

But EPIC’s appeal was dismissed by the hearing examiner, who argued that they didn’t have the authority to weigh in on the permit. A subsequent appeal to the King County Superior Court was also dismissed on grounds that EPIC failed to file its appeal within a mandated time frame. The group then pushed the case to the state Court of Appeals, who affirmed the lower court’s verdict on May 29. Knoll Lowney, EPIC’s attorney on the case, told Sound Publishing that while the group hasn’t decided whether or not they are going to further appeal this ruling, it likely wouldn’t halt construction of the project at this point.“[The county] keep building, so it’s unlikely that a permit appeal is going to have a lot of impact given how slow the Supreme Court works,” he said. “The jail is being built. So, short of a judge requiring it to be torn down, it’s unlikely that the overall envelope is going to be changed.”

In the face of continued activist pressure, the county has maintained that they have to continue with the project while also attempting to appease activists’ intent to eliminate the incarceration of youth in the county. Early last year, Executive Constantine directed county to pursue the goal of “zero youth detention,” and then placed responsibility for restructuring the juvenile detention system with King County Public Health. Then, the county commissioned a review of the new facility’s design from researchers at the University of Washington’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. The analysis, authored by Eric Trupin (vice chair and professor in the university department), made a slew of recommended architectural and programming changes (195 in total), such as reducing the overall number of secure beds from 124 to 92 to account for the declining average daily inmate population, which has fallen from 105 in 2006 to 51 in 2016. Additionally, Trupin called on the county to eliminate truancy beds, refuse the booking of youths under the age of 12, and extend family visitation times to five times a week instead of the current three.

Immediately after the report was published, King County Executive Constantine tried to tame expectations for the timeline of achieving zero youth detention. “We cannot simply decide that as of tomorrow we will have zero detention because we don’t have the kinds of robust alternatives or community facilities and programs we would need to be able to take on those kids and keep them safe and keep the community safe,” he said, according to KUOW.

In Executive Constantine’s response to the report, his staff noted that the county is either already pursuing or pursue numerous the recommendations, such as adding wood paneling to the facility’s interior to move it away from the traditional aesthetics of American correctional facilities and providing mandatory training to detention center staff and judges on cultural competence, implicit bias, institutional racism, and crisis intervention. Kelli Carroll, director of special projects in the executive’s office, said that the county is implementing or will implement (even if only partially) at least 75 percent of the recommendations.

But Constantine wouldn’t budge on some of Trupin’s most crucial recommendations. His staff argued that the secure bed count could not be reduced due to the fact that the facility is already under construction, and that the suggested number would not provide enough separated secure spaces for 19 youth convicted as adults for serious felony charges (such as rape and first degree murder) who were recently relocated to the existing youth detention center from county adult correctional facilities. On increasing family visitation hours and truancy beds, he argued that the policy decisions are in the purview of King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Correction and the state Legislature, respectively. (A bill that would have eliminated the law allowing truant kids to be placed in detention stalled over the 2018 legislative session.)

Trupin said the executive could be much proactive and publicly vocal in pressuring county departments and lobbying for changes in state law to make changes called for by Trupin and activists. “I think that executive leadership and energy and direction around these strategies has a great impact … he can’t necessarily dictate what the court does but he conveys a mission and a vision,” Trupin said. “I don’t think ‘just saying this is out of our purview’ is enough, because it is the county executive who laid out zero youth detention.”

Omid Bagheri, a clinical instructor in the University of Washington School of Public Health and a critic of the new youth detention center, said that, “They continue to move on with the same bed count. This new jail will look nicer, it will have a nicer name, but it still stands to uphold a system that directly impacts black and brown and native youth. That isn’t fundamentally different from other jails we’ve seen around the country,” he said. “The commitment to zero youth detention, that is calling for a fundamental change and this jail is not a fundamental change.”

The county is currently developing a “Zero Youth Detention Road Map” report due at the end of August, which will reportedly inform future reforms.

But, for activists, all the county’s alleged attempts at reform feel hypocritical when the county is still investing in a new detention center. “It’s not too late for Dow to change his mind. And it’s not too late for us to change course,” said Oliver. “All Dow has to do is listen to the community voices that have been reaching out to him for six years.”