The public areas of the new $242 million Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC) offer soaring ceilings, light and open spaces, compelling artwork and an inviting, modern facility where King County’s juvenile-justice system can strive toward its stated goal of “zero youth detention.” The fact that the county isn’t there yet is demonstrated behind a series of steel doors and whitewashed cinder block: a new 156-bed juvenile jail.

For a jail, it’s a nice one. Murals decorate the hallways and every small single-occupancy cell has a floor-to-ceiling painted blackboard with chalk. Common areas include tables and chairs, couches and big-screen TVs mounted high on the walls. Each block — housing a maximum of 16 residents each — has a modern classroom. There’s a medical clinic, a gymnasium, a fully equipped library, a spiritual center and cafeteria. The new facility has 100 fewer beds than the dingy and oppressive Youth Services Center (YSC) building next door, and is designed so its secure wings can be taken over and repurposed as the size of the detention facility continues to shrink.

“We needed this space,” said Chief King County Juvenile Court Judge Judith Ramseyer, who hosted a tour of the not-yet-occupied CFJC for media and officials on Wednesday. “This is the first time the space reflects the care and dedication of the workers it contains.”

Ramseyer introduced the new facility acknowledging that there has “been a lot of controversy about building this space,” including passionate opposition and protests. A group of activists, the No New Youth Jail Coalition, demonstrated and petitioned for several years against the new facility and incarcerating youth in any capacity.

However, Ramseyer said that regardless of opinions over the need or efficacy of youth incarceration, the old YSC was inadequate for the county’s needs.

Families visiting the old Youth Services Center were confronted with cramped courtrooms, scattered resources, and almost no privacy. It was not rare for the families of a victim to be shoulder-to-shoulder with the family of an accused offender, Ramseyer said. Attorney and client conversations took place in hallways or even closets. Juvenile Court Judge Mike Diaz said his courtroom in the old building would reach temperatures in the 80s during the summer, and in the 60s in the winter.

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The new building, Ramseyer said, has achieved the county’s goal of creating an “open, bright and inviting space” for families and children in crisis while making government and community resources more accessible. Inside the CFJC is the Justice Bobbe Bridge Resource Center, where community-run organizations will be available on a rotating basis, to put families in touch with help. Among its offerings: A clothing shop stocked through donations so young people can dress up for job interviews or court.

The new four-story facility, which totals 137,000 square feet, contains 10 modern, wood-trimmed courtrooms, including a large room on the first floor for high-profile cases that might attract media or public attention. That courtroom can hold upward of 100 people; the largest courtroom at YSC barely holds 40. All of the courtrooms are designed with the clients in mind — children and families. The judges’ benches are raised, but not so high as to be imposing or “ominous,” said King County Juvenile Court Manager Paul Daniels. Similarly, all of the attorneys and defendants will sit at a single curved table in front of the judge. “It’s just a softer environment,” he said. “It’s not as adversarial.”

Each of the new courtrooms is wired for video and audio and the hearing-impaired and there will be, for the first time, free child care available on-site.

The lobby and public areas are framed in glass, steel and brick, and look more like an airport concourse or waiting area. The structure contains 91 pieces of original art by 40 artists, spread over its four floors and funded through the county’s 1% For Art program. They include striking murals, glass sculpture, photography and paintings. Several of the murals and photographs are located in the detention center itself. The pieces were chosen by a panel that included court-involved and formerly court-involved youth, according to a center fact sheet.

The goal of all of this is to continue to move King County toward its goal of doing away with juvenile detention altogether. Daniels notes that there were about 40 juveniles in detention on Tuesday, and just four of those were crimes serious enough send them to adult court for prosecution. The average daily population last year was 38, he said.

That’s a vast improvement over the years, said Derrick Wheeler-Smith, the director of Zero Youth Detention at the King County Department of Public Health, who noted that in 1999 the average daily juvenile jail population in King County was around 200 — most of them children of color.

“But we can’t rest on our laurels,” Wheeler-Smith said. “You can’t invest in the future without divesting ourselves of the past.”