No New Youth Jail

King County Youth Detention Center

By Seattle City Council President Bruce Harrell & King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski

In a speech titled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. cautioned leaders to not sleep through revolutions unfolding before them, and reminded us that “the time is always right to do what is right.” This core principle of the civil rights movement should serve as a wake-up call to leaders in the county named after him.

As we approach the final decision about whether to proceed with construction of a new Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC) in Seattle’s Central District, we call on leaders to stop and re-work this proposal. It must be re-designed to achieve our shared goal of ending the school-to-prison pipeline and ensure children and families in crisis are served with a model justice system in a courthouse that supports these objectives. While traditional wisdom certainly supports continuing down the current path of brick and mortar construction, so much recent data and research suggests we have the unique opportunity to construct a facility that not only embraces the fact that incarceration of our youth is not the goal, but has a design driven by this premise. Put another way, it can be driven by the lofty goal of zero use of detention.

The CFJC may have been a reasonable idea when it was first conceived many years ago. The project is comprised of two distinct parts: a new youth jail (let’s call it what it is) and unified family law courthouse, allowing for the consolidation and integration of our family law courts, to deliver better outcomes, more efficiently. The courthouse component of the construction would replace a run-down building that is at the end of its useful life. The rationale for a new youth jail facility was less convincing – particularly since the current detention facility was built in 1992. The voters were told that the new center would better serve youth and families in crisis, help protect and heal children, and cost between $200 and $210 million. Residents of King County approved a new levy in 2012 with 55% voting yes.

Five years later, these promises now ring hollow. It is time to hit the reset button on this project for three primary reasons.

First, as Seattle Mayor Ed Murray has recently pointed out, contemporary knowledge calls for a radical rethinking about how and where we deliver juvenile justice. Second, the current project fails to deliver on the promise of a unified family court. Finally, the project’s runaway budget violates the promises made to voters and calls for a reset.

King County’s Youth Action Plan – the adopted policy for how King County supports our youth - calls for ending the school-to-prison pipeline. The County’s Best Starts for Kids initiative invests $65 million per year in prevention, much of it aimed at preventing youth involvement in our justice system. Seattle’s Family & Education Levy invests more than $30 million annually to support young people. In short, this region is committed to doing right by our youth and families. The CFJC should support and further these commitments.

The first major problem with the CFJC as proposed is that it relies too much on a traditional children’s justice system. As recently as ten years ago, this system incarcerated 200 young people on an average day. It was designed to serve a significant number of youth from Seattle. Since then, King County has led the nation in reducing juvenile incarceration rates, cutting them by nearly 75% to about 50 on average per day. We did this in the current facility by radically changing practices to reflect contemporary understanding.

It bears repeating: our unparalleled success in reducing juvenile incarceration rates was accomplished in the current facility. And in 2016, only 23% of the youth in detention were referred by Seattle police.

While some modifications to reduce detention spaces in the new facility have been made, the revisions to the project continue to reflect an incarceration-centered approach to juvenile justice. It is universally accepted that outcomes from traditional “lock ‘em up” justice are dismal. Sadly, not enough thought and planning has been given to designing a facility that would radically shift course in our juvenile justice system—and that is what we must do.

We don’t believe that the county should spend another nickel building jail cells for kids. While we believe that our system will need to include confinement for some youth for the foreseeable future, we must continue to significantly reduce the use of incarceration. The current secured detention facility – again, built recently in 1992 – could certainly continue to meet decreasing needs. Rather than build a new jail, we believe that further work is necessary to build a justice center that is fundamentally centered on contemporary juvenile justice practices, rather than punitive youth incarceration.

We need a dispersed, community-based juvenile justice system. We don’t need a project that will perpetuate a centralized 1950’s era kid jail system for another fifty years. A brand new, $225 million-plus juvenile jail and court facility in the Central District does nothing to address the burdens imposed on youth in the system from outside Seattle. And, there are no compelling arguments that new jail cells will further our shared goals to support children and youth.

Another major problem with the proposed CFJC is its failure to unify our family law court system, as was originally envisioned. Children and families in crisis (e.g. neglected children, dissolution cases with children, etc.) comprise a growing percentage of our cases. The core principal underlying the planning for the CFJC was that all family and children-related matters should be handled at the same site. But the City of Seattle has not issued construction permits for the two additional stories necessary to fulfill this objective, and the project is now over budget.

The county is about to construct a family law courthouse that will not, and never will, meet the foundational family law principles underlying the entire project. The current justification is “something is better than nothing.” We disagree.

County staff have recently informed elected officials that the CFJC is now over budget – before any construction has even commenced. This is a major issue, but may actually provide the opening to re-assess this project. King County told the voters this project would be constructed at a cost of $200 to $210 million. Current estimates are that it will take at least $225 million -- $15 million more than the high estimate provided to voters. The contractor’s refusal to honor its “guaranteed maximum price” before construction commences is an ominous warning sign for the future budget for the building.

For these reasons, we can no longer support future actions to fund, finance, or permit this project. We must “awaken to the great revolution” in juvenile justice reform and hit the pause button. We must re assess the wisdom of this project, working hand in hand with experts in juvenile and family law and community leaders.

At a minimum, we must explore a path forward that takes a new, unnecessary youth jail off the table. Such a path might allow us to build the family courthouse we actually need by directing those funds to courtrooms and classrooms, not jail cells.

Our goal is to once again open up the dialogue; not to castigate supporters of the project. But more importantly, we want to make sure our future discussions ask the questions that engineers, contractors, and architects wont: Is this facility incorporating all of the information, data, and restorative justice principles intended to improve our youth? Does it reflect lessons we have learned from our policies in the last 50 years?

We do not think the current design does.

King County’s residents will live with the decision on this project for at least 50 years. Now is the time to wake up to the revolution in juvenile justice thinking. Now is the time to do what is right in Martin Luther King County. Our children and families deserve it.