King County detention officials have not complied with an ordinance banning solitary confinement for detained youth, Councilmember Rod Dembowski said in a committee meeting Tuesday, as the council questioned the officials responsible for implementing the law and then withheld some funding.
The Metropolitan King County Council in 2017 passed an ordinance, co-sponsored by Dembowski, that banned solitary confinement in all but a few circumstances, saying in the legislation that “the adverse effects of isolation are well-documented” and that the practice could cause trauma and psychological harm to developing young people.
But, a recent report from an independent monitor found 15 times in which people aged 21 and younger were held in solitary confinement in King County facilities from July through November 2018. The report’s contents were first published last week by The Stranger.
The report also outlined problems when youth transition from juvenile to adult detention facilities, issues with data tracking on solitary confinement and concerns that some detainees had limited access to education and activities.
Dembowski said in an interview that the monitor’s findings about confinement were disturbing to him, but he noted that county detention officials had made some progress.
“I’m frustrated the practice is still going on,” Dembowski said in an interview. “The goal of our juvenile-justice system is to be rehabilitated, to be restorative. What this shows is that we’re actually permanently harming these young people who will come out of detention and back into the community.”
Dembowski and other council members asked pointed questions of county officials responsible for implementing the ordinance.
When Shannon Braddock, the deputy chief of staff for King County Executive Dow Constantine, explained that the county felt it was “meeting the intent of the ordinance” but having some difficulty implementing its changes at adult facilities, Dembowski accused her of avoiding a direct answer to his question.
And in response to Juvenile Detention Director Pam Jones, who had spoken about the challenges of getting young people to follow detention-center rules, Dembowski quipped that the “ordinance is about getting adults following the rules that have been passed into law.”
Braddock and Brenda Bauer, the county’s interim jail director, said several issues had slowed implementation, including bargaining negotiations with guilds representing workers at county detention centers.
Also, in an email to Dembowski, Constantine defended the county’s efforts toward reform and said the county’s executive branch was not resistant to the changes outlined in the 2017 ordinance.
“King County has been aggressively pursuing and implementing criminal-justice reforms in many areas — from reduction of the use of restrictive housing for all populations in detention, to pre-trail (sic) services and bail reform,” Constantine wrote.
The council indicated it will continue scrutiny and oversight of youth detention.
Councilmember Larry Gossett, who chairs the Law and Justice Committee, chose not to hold a vote on approving acceptance of the independent monitor’s report, a process that would have freed up some funding.
“We will not be releasing the $100,000. We want you to come back and update us,” Gossett explained to Braddock, Bauer and Jones.
The council meeting was well-attended, and dozens spoke against solitary confinement during public testimony. At times, the speakers were emotional.
“To confine young people to the hole — that’s what they call it — is absolutely unconscionable,” said the Rev. Harriett Walden, who represented the organization Mothers For Police Accountability.
Sonya Stokes told the council that her son was in solitary for 84 days at King County’s Maleng Regional Justice Center.
“They were housed like animals,” she said during an interview. She recalled visits to her son while he was detained in confinement. “I can see withdrawal, I can see the down-ness. I can feel the depression.”
Stokes’ son, who is now in a transitional housing program, was part of a lawsuit brought by four teenagers against King County in 2017 that sought to end solitary confinement and claimed it violated equal-protection clauses and constitutional guarantees. The county reached a $240,000 settlement with the four teenagers last summer. Dembowski said the county could risk further legal action if it did not speed its reforms.
“If we’re not in compliance with your settlement agreement, we may be facing an injunction in court,” Dembowski told Travis Andrews, director of equity and outreach at Columbia Legal Services, the firm that represented the four teenagers. “Columbia Legal Services is being very patient at this point. I expect that patience may be running out.”
Andrews agreed and said his clients were evaluating their legal options.
Andrews also said a young person was being held in solitary confinement even as the council was meeting Tuesday, but he declined to provide details.
“Legal action is always on the table. The continued use of solitary confinement is concerning. It’s something we feel is an urgent matter,” Andrews said. “There are human beings being injured by those practices.”