Controversial plans to replace the crumbling youth jail at 12th and Alder may be moving forward, but officials are already anticipating the day when it won’t be used for youth detention at all.
In a report reviewed by City Council members Monday, members of an expert panel said the best way to stem racial disparities in the new King County Children and Family Justice Center would be to work towards ending the practice of youth detention altogether. That means building a new facility that could one day serve other uses.
“In its place, government should focus on community-run and neighborhood-based alternatives for youth that are adequately resourced to address youth needs …” the report read.
David Chapman, the county’s Justice System Improvement Manager, said some beds inside the facility were already being designed to adapt to other uses in the future, like substance abuse treatment.
In October, City Council members ordered the racial equity analysis as a condition of passing land use changes needed to build the new facility. The report was the result of work carried out by a 17-member, multi-disciplinary stakeholder group organized by the city’s Office of Civil Rights.
The prevalence of racial disparities in the youth detention system are well documented. According to a special report published in January, black youth in King County are roughly six times more likely than white youth to face a judge in juvenile court. And while the number of youth referred to juvenile court has been falling for years, the bulk of that benefit has gone to whites. Last year, there were 467 admissions to youth detention for probation violations — 42% of those were for black youths.
Council member Kshama Sawant, who cast the lone opposing vote to the land use changes last year, praised the report in the committee meeting Monday but said many of the issues and recommendations were raised months ago.
“It seems a little like Twilight Zone. We should’ve talked about this before there was a vote on the new King County youth jail,” she said.
The King County Council unanimously approved an ordinance to build the new facility during a lengthy, heated meeting in February. In 2012, 55% of voters approved a $210 million levy to build the new 144-bed center. The existing center has 210 beds and detention data shows the current center is typically less than half full.
The stakeholder group identified three main goals in their report:
- Eliminate the need to detain or incarcerate youth.
- Eliminate racial inequities in arrest rates, detention, sentencing and prison population.
- Center communities of color and other youth facing oppression in the provision, creation and use of community-based alternatives to secure confinement
In addition to building an adaptable facility, the panel strongly agreed that all youth processed through the adult system should ultimately be detained in a youth facility. The report also recommended a series of immediate and longterm reforms, including using “restorative justice responses for crimes of poverty and other crimes, especially Theft 3.”
The stakeholder group also suggested hiring “people of color” to construct the new facility. While she supported the initiative, Sawant said the irony was not lost on her that the panel was encouraging minority workers in the area help build a facility that will disproportionately detain minority youths.
As part of the report, the panel consulted with various community members and highlighted this paraphrased comment as representative of how many felt on the issue of reducing racial disparities in youth detention:
The system sets us up to fail. We cannot resolve that simply with programs—we must “dismantle the system” itself. All system stakeholders must acknowledge their roles in contributing to inequities in criminal justice, and be accountable for eliminating negative outcomes for youth of color and other youth facing oppression, including LGBTQ and low-income youth.
The report comes after a plan was rolled out earlier this year wherein King County judges pledged to lock up fewer youths for minor offenses and elected officials promised to bolster youth jobs and diversion programs.