King County officials sought to shift the narrative surrounding the new juvenile justice center during a March 10 meeting by pointing to a 16% drop in overall juvenile incarcerations and a steeper drop among youth of color.
For the past few months, talk around the center has been about whether or not there should even be a youth jail. A group called Ending the Prison Industrial Complex has filed appeals and staged protests, even going so far as to demonstrate in front of Mayor Ed Murray’s house in opposition to the new facility. The group’s latest gambit, an appeal to the hearing examiner, was recently rejected.
Now, the county is hoping to spread a message of its own. At the recent meeting, leaders in the county’s juvenile justice system laid out progress they say they have made toward the goals for which EPIC is agitating.
Friday’s presentation also made the case that the planned facility has the lowest number of cells possible.
It would be challenging to reduce the number of cells in the youth detention facility below 112, largely because of the way prisons are constructed and operated, explained Laura Inveen, presiding judge for King County Superior Court.
First, cell blocks are built with 16 cells, so the number of total cells can only go up or down 16 at a time. There must be separate facilities for girls and boys, Inveen said. Then within those groups, it is considered generally better to keep children of different ages, say a 13-year-old and a 17-year-old, apart. In many cases, Inveen said, there might only be three or four people in any given group of cells, owing to the need for those separations.
Then, there has to be one block kept empty as a backup in case of a problem – for example, electrical or heat goes out – in one of the blocks with people in it.
The current plan, for 112 cells, would result in seven cell blocks.
The new facility is slated to go on the same campus as the existing juvenile justice center 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, and is building a new jail along with them. The recession of 2008 held up plans for the expensive project, but in 2012, the county put a roughly $210 million levy before voters which passed by a 55-45 margin. 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.
EPIC has been arguing that putting youth behind bars is counter-productive. They point to a number of studies which find that most youth are better served by other types of intervention such as counseling services. They’d like there to be no juvenile detention facility, and would find other ways to detain the relative few who need to be held somewhere for the safety of the community and themselves.
County officials, including judges and prosecutors, largely agree and rolled out numbers showing their attempts to do just that.
The average daily population in 2016 was 51 juveniles, a 16% drop from 2015, and an even steeper drop from 1998 when it was 157.
However, that number doesn’t cover all imprisoned juveniles in King County. Another 17-20 juveniles are held in the adult facility in Kent, owing to regulations surrounding their age and the crimes involved.
The group of officials also sought to address another of EPIC’s concerns, that the juvenile justice system disproportionately incarcerates children of color. In 2016, the proportion of black youth in jail decline from 58.5% to 49.9%, they said. So while the overall population dropped, the percentage of black youth dropped even more. According to U.S. Census figures, 6.8% of the county population was black in 2015. Another 5% identified as multi-racial, but there’s no way to know how many in that group include a black parent.
Wesley Saint Clair, chief juvenile judge for King County said there was no single factor which he could point to as responsible for reducing that number, but rather a “universe” of small changes.
“It’s changing the tone of the interaction,” he said.
Generally, officials chalked up the decline to a rise in intervention programs designed to help the youth get proper counseling.
“It really is a paradigm shift,” said Saint Clair.
For example, nearly a third of juvenile detention bookings involve domestic violence. Under the older system, youth and families could often only get assistance after a child was found guilty, which puts families in an awful position of needing to jail their children to get counseling.
“In order for us to help you, we need a conviction, which as a parent, that sounds preposterous,” said Jimmy Hung, who heads the juvenile unit for the King County Prosecutor’s office.
These newer initiatives, in particular one called Family Intervention and Restorative Services, places youth who have been arrested in a respite center instead of the detention center. The center offers counseling and a more supportive environment. Rather than being greeted by a strip search, the youth are met by a counselor who tries to get at the root of the problems.
The program started in January 2016, and officials note that the time it’s been operating corresponds with a 62% drop in juvenile domestic violence case filings.
Some other programs try to help young criminals develop empathy. A program called Peacemaking Circles, requires the youth to address the victim of their crime. Restorative Meditation, a program for nonviolent offenders, also encourages youth to understand the impact their crimes have had on the victim.
The new justice center is slated to begin construction this year, and open by 2020.