Those protesting a new King County juvenile courthouse and detention center are playing fast and loose with the facts.
KING County badly needs a new courthouse and detention center for youth. Voters in 2012 agreed to build a new $210 million complex because the old one is decrepit, cramped and unsafe. There was no organized opposition to that campaign.
This week, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s administration is expected to issue the final permits after previous approval by the King County executive, the Metropolitan King County Council and the Seattle City Council. Murray should do so, despite protests outside his Capitol Hill home on Monday that falsely pitted the courthouse project against education funding.
Like so many of the protests in Seattle’s current political environment, facts have gotten lost in the rhetoric.
The case for a new facility is rock solid. King County’s youth courthouse and detention center were built in 1952 with a projected 30-year life span, when the county had about one-third the population it does today.
Courtrooms are so small that parents are shunted to the hall.
“What we’re doing to families is not acceptable,” said the late King County juvenile court Judge Patricia Clark, a leader in the African-American community, in support of the 2012 campaign.
The facility’s failing heating and plumbing systems — described by another judge as “like something out of a 1920s steamship” — cause 90-degree conditions in offices and brown water spewing from drinking fountains. The complex needs at least $40 million in repairs to stay functional; but that would be throwing good money after bad.
Protests against the project skip over those facts, focusing instead on the 112-bed detention portion of the new project, which is about half the current number of juvenile detention beds.
King County has the second-lowest juvenile detention rate of any urban area in the country, and has done extensive work to divert youth out of detention and by severely restricting the number of youth held before trial. As a result, the rate of juvenile detention has dropped by almost 70 percent since 1998.
More work is needed, because detention for youth is not an effective intervention. But lots of work has already been done.
The county is required by law to have secure detention beds. Protesters who demand no youth detention, under any circumstances, don’t have a reasonable public-safety solution for youths accused of the most serious crimes, including murder.
Protesters do have a nifty Twitter hashtag — #nonewyouthjail — and progressive-sounding talking points about funding education instead. That talking point is a false equivalency that ignores that education funding comes from the state, and this project is a county obligation, one that voters already approved and are paying for.
It also ignores the fact that King County, with a new voter-approved Early Starts levy, will spend $400 million on child-focused education and health intervention over the next six years. The detention portion of the project will cost $45 million, with a 50-year life cycle for the facility.
Blocking a new youth courthouse and detention center won’t end juvenile detention. But it will ensure King County is stuck with failing infrastructure. Murray’s administration should give final approval, and King County should get to work on the project.