King County, while building a new juvenile detention center, is also officially striving toward zero youth detention. It's exasperating some — but not all — of the critics who want to see the government hit that goal.
By trumpeting its “Road Map to Zero Youth Detention” at a news conference last month, King County is attempting something talked about, but never actually achieved, by any other major county in the country.
The result has highlighted a two-ton elephant of a question: How exactly do you promote, let alone hit, a target no one has come close to achieving, while at the same time constructing a $232 million Children and Family Justice Center that also contains a 112-bed juvenile detention center?
Adding to the degree of difficulty is a spectrum of invested parties with often competing interests — ranging from prison abolitionists who accuse the county of idea-appropriation, to community partners engaged in a marriage of necessity and critics lobbing healthy doses of cynicism.
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Citing past laudable but unfilled proclamations that promise to end homelessness or traffic fatalities, critics argue that the goal of “zero youth detention,” while commendable, is no more realistic.
An initiative unveiled by County Executive Dow Constantine at a news conference last month proposes $4 million for youth diversionary programs and sets an aspirational goal of total vacancy in the 92,000 square-foot juvenile detention wing of its proposed $232 million Children and Family Justice Center, which is replacing a decades-old, ramshackle building in Seattle.
Scheduled for completion in 2020, the structure will sit mere yards away from the site of the detention center in the Central District’s Squire Park neighborhood.
The county’s decision to invest more money on children’s confinement versus preventative programs — while claiming a goal of zero detention — has attracted a blitzkrieg of controversy ever since King County voters approved construction of the Justice Center in 2012.
For local activists, the structure and its 112 beds embody the county’s struggle over just how to overhaul its juvenile justice system — one in King County that incarcerates youth of color at 5.6 times the rate of white youth, according to the county’s own data.
For more than six years, the No New Youth Jail Coalition (NNYJ) has advocated against incarcerating youth in any capacity.
That stance has led to ongoing demonstrations, with activists pouring into council meetings, setting up petition drives at light-rail stops, and performing noisy demonstrations outside the King County executive’s home, all in hopes of putting a moratorium on the center’s construction.
It’s also resulted in a clash of narratives between the county and NNYJ, whose members say the county directly lifted language originated by the group. As proof they point to their success in convincing the City of Seattle to adopt a nonbinding resolution on zero youth detention in 2015.
Ever since, the county and coalition have been aligned on stated objectives but opposed on tactics. The county is unequivocally moving forward with the facility. The group is fiercely against its construction.
With neither budging, direct talks between the two have chilled to arctic levels.
“The county says we don’t want to talk but we just don’t want to do it on their terms, where they look like the savior and things don’t change,” says Kelsen Caldwell, who has been an NNYJ affiliate for the past three years. Caldwell says the group has taken drastic measures such as blocking downtown traffic during peak commuting hours and disrupting Constantine’s campaign fundraisers because they feel they’re being purposely muted. As chief defender of the need for the center, Constantine has been NNYJ’s primary adversary.
In response, Constantine often cites the necessity of separating youth guilty of violent offenses from the general population, a scenario he says NNYJ has no adequate response to. According to the county, 23 percent of youth in detention are there for violent crimes.
“There’s an impression of people who don’t believe in jails as not taking harm seriously. It’s just the opposite, though,” says Caldwell, when asked what should be done with children who kill or rape.
Caldwell says the county’s priorities are misplaced and thinks the quarter of a billion dollars being spent on the facility should instead go to community-based alternatives to confinement. Caldwell believes that “where there’s a vision and dream,” you can devise treatments other than sequestration from society for minors guilty of horrific crimes.
King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove disagrees.
“Unfortunately, I don’t ever see a time in our society where we don’t remove someone from the larger population who’s a serial rapist, let’s say, just because they’re under 18,” he says, adding that the county doesn’t get enough credit for decreasing the overall number of youth in confinement to a 20-year low and devoting nearly $400 million to early education via its Best Start For Kids Levy.
With constructive dialogue between the county and NNYJ at a stalemate, other groups occupying a middle ground — some see them as representative of the majority of county residents, somewhere on the continuum between the county and NNYJ’s positions — are quietly operating to realize the shared goal.
“We all want every young person treated justly and families supported,” said Sean Goode of Choose 180, an anti-gang and violence-prevention program. “But we turn this issue of young people sick with the disease of violence and needing to be quarantined into a polarizing one.” Choose 180 is headquartered in the Rainier Beach neighborhood.
Goode, who has headed up the organization for nearly two years, regularly partners with Dominique Davis of Community Passageways, a crime-prevention group, to divert youth from going to prison and also get their convictions reduced from felonies to misdemeanors.
“We get mad and want to march and yell and scream but at the end of the day is anything going to change from that? And if it does, it’s not sustaining change,” Davis said.
He says enduring change comes from empowering communities that have been historically disenfranchised, a shared belief that led him and Goode to partner with the county, which occasionally funds their work.
“The justice system is controlled by the county. The only way I can get charges reduced on youth I’m working with is through the county,” says Davis.
The collaboration has occasionally led to tension, with some members of NNYJ walking out midway through a community conversation attended by county representatives and aimed at gathering feedback on programs hosted at the new facility. Others stayed to engage in debate, according to Davis.
At this point, Davis sees rallying against the jail as ineffective.
“If that building crumbles down tomorrow, all the things that brought the kids there — institutional racism and an unjust justice and educational system — will still exist,” Davis said. “It’s only brick and mortar. We got to focus on building relationships of support for these kids.”
Maryem Weini, 18, who spent time in the county’s current juvenile facility, echoes him.
“I ran away from home and ended up in the jail because I didn’t have any support,” she says about a lack of adults invested in her life early on. Weini says that money should be taken from the jail and put into a “family support system” in which youth can encounter a loving environment. She adds this was the polar opposite of the atmosphere during her time at the county’s current detention center.
Meanwhile, Goode continues work toward bridging the gap between a county he sees as genuinely wanting an empty detention center one day and organizers he credits with pushing them toward that end.
For him, that goal can only be accomplished one way. Together.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly implied that $232 million will be spent on a youth correction facility. That amount will fund the entire King County Children and Family Justice Center, which will include a 112-bed youth detention facility.