King County Executive Dow Constantine’s plan to put juvenile detention under the public-health department is only one of several expert recommendations the county should adopt to improve youth-detention practices.

Share story

King County Executive Dow Constantine’s announcement that he wants to put juvenile detention under the umbrella of the county’s public-health department is a promising direction to further steer kids away from the trauma of detention and toward rehabilitation.

But it is too soon to tell what Constantine’s grand plan may look like.

Constantine directed several agencies to review reorganizing juvenile-detention practices and then deliver recommendations by February. The county also will contract with the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice to review its policies and practices, and recommend potential reforms.

But absent from Constantine’s announcement were any examples of alternatives that should be employed that the youth court isn’t already doing.

To its credit, the county has been successful in diverting more teensfrom detention cells, having reduced its daily detention population to about 50 kids, down from 200 in the late 1990s.

Influencing the executive is a recent report from Eric Trupin, a division director within the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the UW School of Medicine. It contains dozens of recommendations for improving the county’s approach to juvenile detention. All are geared toward helping the county reach a rather lofty goal of trying to detain no child under 18.

While moving juvenile detention to another county department, such as public health, was among Trupin’s recommendations, others included revamping the design of the county’s new juvenile-detention facility to include fewer secure beds — no more than 92 — and more space for therapeutic programming.

The report also recommended ending the practice of placing noncriminal kids such as truants and runaways in secure confinement, while reducing detention for lower-risk juveniles accused of drug crimes, property crimes and probation violations.

These ideas are solid, research-based methods that can help reduce how many kids spend time in detention — an experience that can traumatize children and make their behavior worse — and instead focus on getting them the help they need.

County officials should work with the juvenile court to move forward with more of Trupin’s key recommendations, including ways to further enhance design of the juvenile-detention facility.

Construction of the county’s new Children and Family Justice Center is underway, in accordance with voters’ 2012 decision to build the $210 million facility. However, time is of the essence. The new facility — which includes plans for new courtrooms and youth-program areas, in addition to detention beds — is scheduled for completion by late 2019, a deadline fast approaching.

With a new facility soon to come online, it’s now up to Constantine and the County Council to ensure that it employs the very best practices in juvenile-justice reform. Seattle and King County are depending on it.