King County judges will lock up fewer youths for minor offenses and elected officials are promising to bolster diversion programs as part of a plan announced Tuesday to address inherent racism in the county’s juvenile justice system.
King County Executive Dow Constantine joined King County Judge Susan Craighead to announce the plan as the county faces ongoing efforts by activists and community groups to stop the replacement of the aging youth detention center at 12th and Alder.
“Racial disparity has no place in our justice system here in King County, especially not in systems responsible for the well-being of our youth,” Constantine said.
Under the new initiative, judges would avoid ordering detention for low-level “status” offenses, like skipping school. County judges have also pledged to cut in half the number of youths detained for violating terms of their probation and to reduce detention times. Last year, there were 467 admissions to youth detention for probation violations — 42% of those were for black youths.
In order to divert those youths away from detention, County Council members plan to invest $4.3 million in job programs and expanded options for diversion.
Constantine also announced the county would cut 32 beds from the planned Children and Family Justice Center. The current 12th and Alder facility has 212 beds. The new voter-approved center was supposed to have 144 beds, which has now been reduced to 112. Officials said the true maximum capacity will be closer to 80.
Ongoing demonstrations, both on in the streets and in the halls of the King County Council, seemed to have spurred the recent “paradigm shift.”
“The demontrators have made us more cognizant, they pushed us to be more aware,” said council member Larry Gossett.
Saying the youth detention center had become a “dumping ground” for troubled kids, Craighead said judges will be working with probation officers to implement incentives over punishments. As part of their homework for implementing the new system, all Superior Court judges were recently required to read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.”
Craighead said the county should be aiming for zero youth detentions. However, nothing in Tuesday’s announcement specifically sets that goal. “It’s kind of like attacking small pox,” she said. “Having a goal that seems so far out of reach right now can be a very powerful thing.”
Youth detentions in King County have been dropping over the years, though its primarily benefitted whites. In 2000, the average daily population of the youth center was at 205. Last year it was 45, though black youths are now roughly six times more likely than whites to face a judge in juvenile court.
In February, the King County Council unanimously approved an ordinance to build a new youth detention center at 12th and Alder. The vote was preceded by five hours of impassioned public testimony that drew an overflow crowd and a brief police response.
Black youths are around five times more representative inside the county’s youth detention center as compared to the general population. Such racial disproportionality has been a major rallying cry for those seeking to stop the $210 million investment in a new center and programming.
According the county, the current facility’s major plumbing and electrical systems have decayed beyond repair.
For decades, Gossett has championed social and racial justice issues in Seattle, but his support for replacing the youth detention center has put him at odds with some progressive allies. Nevertheless, Gossett said he was committed to reducing the number of detained youths as much as possible.
“Mass incarceration has not made us safer, its made us more unsafe,” he said.
Meanwhile, the county is continuing its work on a Race and Social Justice Action Plan to address to root causes of youth detention, such as police and school reforms.