Earlier this month, activists began a new stand to stop the construction of a new juvenile justice facility and detention center at 12th and Alder. Here is a look inside Ending the Prison Industrial Complex’s appeal with the city’s Hearing Examiner asking for exceptions made in permits issued by the city to be overturned.
“They shouldn’t have gotten the variances,” Knoll Lowney, attorney for EPIC tells CHS.
The new facility is slated to go on the same campus along 12th Ave about a block south of the Seattle University campus. King County has been looking to replace the courthouse and administrative buildings for years. That buildings on the site was constructed in 1951, with an addition in 1972 that also renovated the 1951 building. The recession of 2008 held up plans for the expensive project, but in 2012, the county put a measure up before voters. In addition to the courtrooms and offices, the county included the youth detention facility, which was built in 1992, though EPIC disputes the ballot language was clear about the detention facility being part of the plan.
In addition to the new facilities, the county would reconnect Alder across the parcel, and would sell a chunk of land on the southern border for residential development. The money generated from that sale will be used to defray the costs of the facility.
EPIC has been opposed to the facility since county voters approved it by a 55-45 margin in August 2012. The group has tried numerous court filings and has persuaded some members of the city council and county council to reconsider their thinking on the concept of a youth jail. While some sort of youth facility is mandated under state law, EPIC questions its usefulness. They point to mountains of data that the youth justice system both in general and in King County in particular, is biased against black people and other people of color; and other studies which show that putting young people in jail tends to have negative effects that can last their entire life.
City Council president Bruce Harrell said earlier this month he wants the county to reconsider the need for a new facility.
Lowney said if there is a need to keep young people in jail while society phases out this system, the existing detention center will fit the bill. It is only 25 years old, and does not need the kinds of systemic repairs the other court facilities require. He further says that even after that there may be youth who, for the safety of society and themselves, might need to be placed in some kind of facility, but that there are residential facilities which might serve the purpose while also serving the youth.
The existing detention center has 212 beds. The new one could have up to 144, though County Executive Dow Constantine said he’d like it to hold to no more than 112. There are generally fewer than 60 youth being held on any given day.
The latest front in this battle will start this week but the serious business with the Hearing Examiner won’t take place until April. The examiner is an independent office of the city and has the authority to overturn decisions.
In this case, Lowney and EPIC are hoping to overturn decisions to grant the county variances which will allow the project to go forward. On December 23, 2016, the city issued waivers allowing a wider building and narrower side setback than would typically be allowed. The decision notes that a wider building is required because a courthouse needs to house particular functions in close proximity, and so it can’t be much smaller than it is. Additionally, the design of the building allows the county to maintain a public green space in the northeast corner of the property, and allows the public benefit of re-connecting Alder.
The decision also addresses the existence of contaminated soil on the property. Soil testing revealed the presence of lead, petroleum and PCE’s (a chemical often used in dry cleaning which may cause cancer), and the old buildings have asbestos, lead paint and other chemicals. Such hazards are not uncommon when redeveloping properties. The city will allow construction, but will require the use of abatement teams to remove hazardous materials, along with other industry-standard safety guidelines for dealing with the removal of hazardous materials.
In their appeal, EPIC says the county did not provide sufficient public notice about the project, including not only the social justice aspects of jailing youth, but also the more technical decisions. They say the decision to allow construction should be overturned and the project should undergo a more thorough environmental review which takes into account a laundry list of items, including thing like the impacts of incarceration on youth, the handling of hazardous materials, violations of land use laws, parking impacts and more.
While some of these arguments may be outside the authority of a hearing examiner, Lowney said they plan to frame their arguments within a context that will give the examiner authority to make a decision. Lowney did not want to discuss specifics of the case, since it was still pending.
An attorney for King County did not respond to requests for comment.
The case is scheduled to start this week, but a decision will take months. In the meantime, a recent “stop work” order issued by the city brought some preparation work underway at the site to a halt.