Pretty much everyone now agrees jailing children is not the best way to deal with juvenile crime. And that represents mountains of progress in the county’s planned Children and Family Justice Center.
Debate has flared up again over construction of King County’s juvenile jail/courthouse known as the Children and Family Justice Center in Seattle. There has been steady opposition to the project from the start, and it has continued since voters in 2012 chose to fund the facility, even as attitudes toward juvenile incarceration evolve.
Opponents of the Central District project have been leaning on Seattle Mayor Ed Murray to take a stand on it, which he did Monday in a letter to King County Executive Dow Constantine and King County Superior Court Presiding Judge Laura Inveen.
Murray asked the county to take another look at the design of the planned facility.
Inveen and juvenile-court Chief Judge J. Wesley Saint Clair sent a response Tuesday that suggested some unhappiness with the mayor’s letter. In a phone interview, Inveen told me she welcomes constructive criticism but felt disappointed, partly because the county is doing so much to avoid jailing young people.
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The good thing is that pretty much everyone agrees jailing children is not the best way to deal with juvenile crime. So some of the argument is about the pace of movement away from incarceration and the details of the journey.
People who oppose building a new facility at all have helped speed up the change in how children are treated. Plans for the new center have moved toward more family services and less incarceration, partly because of ongoing pressure and partly because of research that supports moving toward practices that are more productive for individual children, and for the community.
That progress is worth celebrating.
Juvenile-incarceration rates have been falling across the country since 1999, and King County has been a leader in reducing those rates. The current facility usually has around 30 children at any time, a number that in the past had tipped past 200. Judges actively look for more constructive alternatives, so that most of the young people in juvenile detention now are accused of violent crimes.
Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell and King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski criticized the construction project in a guest editorial in The Stranger on Tuesday, saying they support replacing the old juvenile courthouse with a better facility that will include family services. But they don’t agree that the county needs to replace the jail portion of the facility.
They make a number of arguments, but one is that the county has done so well at reducing juvenile-incarceration rates that it doesn’t need the new jail.
In response to earlier criticism, the county reduced the number of planned detention capacity from 144 to 112 juveniles in the new jail plan (in units of 16 beds each).
Officials say they don’t expect to house that many people, but at least 112 spaces are required for several reasons, such as to keep males and females separate, or to separate juveniles who can’t be housed together for safety reasons. If the incarcerated population drops enough, spaces could be converted to other uses.
Constantine said his goal is to get to zero juveniles incarcerated, but that isn’t going to happen right away. He told me, “The real-world fact is there are several dozen young people who have done terrible harm to others.”
“What do you do to keep people safe from these kids who have done something violent? We don’t have another setting. We need detention that is bringing in all the therapy and help they need,” Constantine said. “We can’t do that in the current facility.”
Getting to zero kids incarcerated, or as close to that as possible, goes well beyond the configuration of a building. It has to be baked into attitudes and practices, encoded in laws, and supported by work to help homes, schools and neighborhoods do a better job of getting children on a good path to begin with.
Most people in the juvenile-justice system today know that they are there only because something else has gone wrong in a child’s life — usually a lot of things. Children need secure housing, health care, high quality child care and a good education.
Local officials are feeling the heat over the building plan. They should also be encouraged and helped to move quickly to improve other areas of children’s lives.