While the debate about King County’s new proposed youth jail and courthouse continues, the county announced Friday that it is continuing to make strides in reducing the number of youths who are incarcerated. It also announced modest progress in reducing racial disparities.
The number of youth incarcerated in King County fell by 16 percent last year and the percentage of youths of color who were incarcerated, while still disproportionately high, fell as well, county officials announced Friday.
The change comes as the county continues to move forward on the construction of a new youth jail and courthouse, despite prominent protests and challenges from local activists who object to youth incarceration.
There were, on the average day, 51 kids in detention in the county last year, a decrease from 61 in 2015, and the lowest number in at least two decades, the county said. In 1998, for instance, the county held 187 juveniles in detention on an average day.
About half of youth in detention were black, a decrease from about 59 percent in 2015. Although they represent progress, those numbers are still far higher than the proportion of black people in the population: Only about 13 percent of King County’s residents are black.
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The juvenile-detention numbers do not include about 20 in the county who — due to their age and specific crimes — have been charged as adults and are being held in adult jail.
Juvenile-justice officials tout their emphasis on restorative-justice programs — offering more rehabilitative programs rather than punishments and incarceration. On Friday, they focused on a new program intended for youth arrested for violence against a family member.
The program, called Family Intervention and Restorative Services, gives young people a place to go overnight, to cool down and to get counseling to help them reunite with family.
Before the program’s launch in early 2016, youth often had to be charged with a crime and possibly stay in detention before they could get support services.
The program served more than 200 families in 2016, the county said, and helped cause a 62 percent drop in juvenile domestic violence case filings, compared with 2015.
Those are the type of programs, county officials say, that will be housed in the new youth jail and courthouse building.
Public outrage over that facility continues.
Last week, a legal challenge to the project was dismissed on procedural grounds.
The new complex, estimated to cost $210 million, was approved by King County voters in 2012, although Murray recently asked county officials to “take a second look” at the project. About 75 percent of that cost is for the courthouse, as opposed to the jail, county officials said.
The county has approved a contract to begin construction of the facility this year and it is expected to open in 2019.
Laura Inveen, presiding judge for King County Superior Court, said that while it would be “cost-prohibitive” to change the basic structure of the building, “we want to know what the community wants within those walls.”
The new building would have more courtrooms and only about half as many detention beds (112) as the current facility, which officials say is outdated and lacks heat and air conditioning.
Wesley St. Clair, the county’s chief juvenile-court judge, said most of the juveniles who remain in detention in the county are in for gun-related crimes. The vast majority, he said, were incarcerated for murder, sex offenses or robbery.
Jimmy Hung, the juvenile-unit chair for the prosecutor’s office, said that while the county’s goal of zero youth incarceration was something it continues to aspire to, it remains, for now, a goal.
“There are kids who have done some pretty awful things and they need a humane place, a therapeutic place, for them to spend some time,” he said.
“Right now the detention facility was built in a time when I think we as a society were more punishment-focused, versus rehabilitative.”