King County’s new juvenile justice center, set to open this week, is a space designed for transformation.
The light-filled Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center stands in stark contrast to the cramped and outdated Youth Services Center. It includes thoughtful details, both functional and symbolic, intended to support youth and their families during difficult times and to help troubled youth find a better path. The gallery-like public spaces display commanding artwork worth stopping by to see.
This building, authorized by voters in a 2012 tax measure, is not welcomed by those adamantly opposed to any child detained in jail. But it represents an important step forward in King County’s already impressive efforts to greatly reduce the need for a juvenile jail.
The new courthouse includes on-site child care and a resource center to connect youth and families with social services, nonprofits and community organizations ready to help. Conference rooms on each floor allow for private, sensitive discussions, such as between clients and attorneys, which once had to be conducted in a crowded lobby. The 10 modern courtrooms have ample room for family and other interested members of the public.
Judges will preside over court proceedings from benches only slightly elevated, rather than towering over the courtroom. Parties will sit at a single U-shaped table, intended to convey a unified, rather than adversarial, purpose.
Similarly supportive approaches are included in the detention center, which includes an infirmary, a branch of the King County library system, spiritual center and a gym for programs such as trauma-informed fitness classes and cooperative games. A merit hall — with plush couches, pop-shot basketball and video games — is intended to reward good behavior. Full-body scanners replace more invasive searches.
The facility has 100 fewer detention beds than the building it replaces and is designed so secure units can be repurposed as fewer beds are needed. Still, critics have argued that its 156 beds are still too many, given the average daily population is closer to 40. Others suggest the new detention center is a gesture of bad faith that belies King County’s commitment to Zero Youth Detention. Skepticism is understandable, given the painful history and persistent racial disparities in youth incarceration.
But here and around the country, deliberate effort and changed policies have led to significant declines in youth incarceration. Nationwide, 43,580 people under age 21 were in juvenile detention, correctional or residential facilities in 2017, the most recent available snapshot, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. That’s down 41% since 1995. Washington’s rate of youth detained, incarcerated or placed in residential facilities was 115 per 100,000 in that same year — the lowest on the West Coast — ranking the state 18th in the country. In 2007, there were 213 youths per 100,000 in detention in Washington. A decade earlier, there were 332.
Troubling racial and ethnic disparities remain, with Black youth facing the highest rate of incarceration by demographic group. From January through September last year, on an average day there were 23 Black youth, 10 Hispanic/Latinx, 5.6 white, two Asian/Pacific Islander and one Native American youth in juvenile detention in King County.
Here, too, transformational work is underway. King County Zero Youth Detention is taking a public-health approach to support youth and families before they ever reach the courthouse. The court itself is developing a youth-centered therapeutic model that assesses youth and family needs and offers incentives and rewards for success. The court also is reviewing probation practices to ensure it is constructive.
But there is much to do before the county reaches its goal of zero youth detention. A one-day snapshot taken on Jan. 24 shows that overwhelmingly, the 39 juveniles in King County detention were charged with violent offenses — murder, attempted murder, robbery, rape and assault. These are serious crimes, made no less serious by the reality that they may have been predated by family and community failure to provide the resources and support that every child needs and deserves.
With commitment, the new juvenile justice facility can assist the county’s aim to transform juvenile court involvement into a catalyst for change. To make that happen, it will take broad community support to help King County’s most-troubled youth.