Regardless of Seattle’s efforts to turn back the clock on the new King County Children and Family Justice Center, it is an unfortunate necessity, writes Jonathan Martin.

Share story

Mike O’Brien wants to build a time machine.

Back in 2014, the Seattle City Council member sponsored legislation for King County to build a new youth courthouse and detention center. He voted for it. Now that the detention center is a fireball in Seattle progressive politics, O’Brien is trying to turn back the clock, and retroactively change his own law.

Think about that for a minute. Land-use law is bone dry — unless politicians can change it after the fact. Suddenly, land use gets as chaotic as a wave pool on a hot day.

O’Brien says he’s just fixing a drafting error in his original ordinance which unintentionally blocked appeals by the #NoYouthJail protesters. But he’s also retroactively issuing a mea culpa and appeasing an aggressive youth movement with deep support in the black community.

O’Brien set up his time-machine ordinance in a council committee hearing Tuesday evening at Seattle University. He got the expected result. A big standing-room-only crowd opened with chants and ended by voting, symbolically, to send O’Brien’s ordinance to Monday’s full City Council meeting.

“I want to apologize for my vote a few years ago,” O’Brien told the crowd. Citing racial disproportionality in the justice system, he said, “I and my family have benefitted from that system, and that’s not right.”

Not surprisingly, King County thinks it’s a lousy idea to encourage more appeals on the already-delayed — and voter-approved — project. In a letter to O’Brien, King County called the retroactive provision “unprecedented.” Land-use attorney Rich Hill, who represents the project’s contractor, agreed. “I’ve been doing this close to 40 years, and I don’t think I’ve seen that,” he said.

You can practically see the tension between the city and county on the new $210 million Children and Families Justice Center. Seattle approved a master-use permit in December. Construction is underway. Yet Seattle Mayor Ed Murray urged county Executive Dow Constantine to take “a second look.” And the city has slow-walked permits, adding inflation costs of $500,000 a month in this red-hot construction market.

Here are the basics of the project: The old juvenile courthouse in Seattle’s Central District has failing heating and plumbing, and a Soviet-era ambience. Voters in 2012 said yes to a property-tax levy to replace it, adding three courtrooms. Good riddance.

The controversial part is the attached new youth detention center, aka jail. The existing 212 beds will be replaced with a 112-bed facility that includes a yoga room. “Therapeutic” was used a lot in its design, because, after all, it was designed in Seattle.

But members of the Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) protest movement say “therapeutic” and “juvenile detention” don’t belong in the same sentence — and they are right, to a point. African-American youth are vastly overrepresented in King County’s youth detention. Research unequivocally shows detention is not a deterrent and causes lasting harm.

Yet, the thought of no youth detention beds in a county of 2.1 million people is absurd. Of course some youths need to be detained, even briefly. Where would the teenager accused of assaulting a family member go? Back home? Does a 16-year-old charged with murder walk free the same day?

And contrary to EPIC’s point, it does make a difference how a facility is designed. The current one feels very much like the 1970s-era prison it is. That sends kids a desolate message.

One other data point: King County judges in juvenile court have been focusing on diverting kids from detention, and dropped the daily detention census from about 200 kids a day in the late 1990s to about 45 per day now, the lowest per capita rate in the country. Kudos.

A good slogan is not responsible policy. If King County were to kill just the detention part of this project now, it would blow the budget from the 2012 voter levy by $40 million or more. King County is legally required to have detention, so we’d be stuck with an old jail in need of modernization, far larger than we need.

It’s also worth noting that the protests have had a sharp edge at times. Progressive judges have been shouted down as “racist” for supporting the project, and county staff and consultants report their homes being sprayed with graffiti or their neighborhoods pamphleted by protesters. Early Monday morning, a construction trailer at the project site was torched in what the county considers a suspicious fire.

As the Seattle City Council sets up O’Brien’s time machine, it feels like a fork-in-the-road moment. The council tilts the scales toward the protesters without offering a solution to the bigger issue. In 2015, it set a laudable goal of zero youth detention. So: Step up or step back.

Meanwhile, King County already has reduced the number of beds in the proposed detention center because of protests. If the county yields further, and kills the detention center, youth detention won’t end.