UPDATE: The Seattle City Council voted 8-1 Monday in favor of a land use bill that will give King County the ability to replace its crumbling Youth Detention Center at 12th and Alder.
Land use bills rarely evoke significant emotion or public attention, but Monday’s meeting drew a number of public commenters who opposed spending more money on a youth detention system that disproportionately detains African Americans.
Council member Kshama Sawant cast the lone “no” vote, saying the county should instead use a fraction of the estimated $200 million to repair the currently crumbling Youth Services Center and spend the rest on youth jobs programs. Council member Mike O’Brien said it was not up to the council to decide whether or not to continue investments in youth detention and that the old facility needed to be replaced.
Council members passed an amendment to the bill that would delay the implementation of the zoning changes until April 2015 so a racial impact study of building a new detention facility could be complete.
In 2012, 55% of voters approved a $210 million levy to build the new 144-bed facility. The existing center has 210 beds. Detention data shows the current center is typically less than half full.
The council bill would alter the zoning code to allow for construction of the new center, even though one already exists on the 9-acre site. The new facility, called the Children and Family Justice Center, will also include a courtroom and gymnasium:
The project includes building a new 136,992 square foot (sf) courthouse with 10 courtrooms, a new 98,031 sf juvenile detention facility with 154 dorms, and a new four-level parking structure with 440 spaces. The existing buildings will be demolished, leaving 2.8 acres of the county-owned property at 12th Avenue and Alder Street unused.
The project is planned to be completed in 2018.
Here’s a plain-ish English description of the various zoning changes the county is proposing. The most important is a new “youth services center” designation within the zoning code. From DPD:
It is appropriate to define distinct uses and establish YSCs as a sub-classification of jail to recognize the different characteristics of the two uses. Although both YSCs and jails have a common activity of incarceration, many activities in a YSC are clearly distinct from a jail, including both the uses included in the proposed definition.
The new classification “YSC” is proposed to be a permitted use in the NC3 and LR3 zones.
While planning for the new center has been ongoing for years, the council’s zoning bill became a flashpoint for a debate over the issue of youth detention more broadly. In last month’s meeting of the Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability Committee, critics of the new center packed the room, many representing the Ending the Prison Industrial Complex campaign. The group’s members are concerned that new facilities would continue to disproportionately detain minority youth.
According to data from King County, African American youth referred to the justice system are over seven times more likely to end up in secure confinement than white youth. However, the detention rate for black youths dropped by half since 2003-2013.
Council members Mike O’Brien and Tim Burgess both voted in favor of the bill at the meeting. Council member Nick Licata abstained because county officials would not agree to delay the project until a racial impact study was completed.
In a letter published by the The Stranger, two King County judges argued that the county has a state mandate to operate a youth detention center and that halting the building of a new facility would not address race disproportionality, which they said is decreasing anyway.