The new youth-detention facility planned for 2019 will have fewer beds and a stronger emphasis on rehabilitation in an effort to address racial disparities in incarceration.
Calling the racial disparities in the detention of King County youth “unacceptable,” Executive Dow Constantine Tuesday announced that the planned juvenile-detention center scheduled to open in 2019 would have fewer beds and more support services to help keep young people out of jail.
“Racial disparity has no place in our justice system,” Constantine said at a news conference in downtown Seattle.
Constantine said the number of beds in the new facility would be capped at 112, about half the current capacity. Additionally, he said county judges and commissioners have agreed to reduce the use of detention for some juveniles, such as truants and runaways.
While the average daily population of the county’s juvenile jail dropped 73 percent since 2002, from a high of 212 to 58 today, African-American youth are much more likely to wind up behind bars. They represent just 10 percent of the county’s juveniles but 50 percent of its detainees, Constantine said.
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“That’s not right. We can do better as a community,” he said.
The reduction in jail beds is unlikely to silence critics who have protested construction of the new juvenile facility for several years and have called on the county to spend the $210 million voters approved in 2012 for the new center instead on support services, education and employment for at-risk youth.
Constantine said the county can’t commit to zero incarceration of juveniles.
“That can only happen when there is no one under the age of 18 committing rape, robbery and murder,” Constantine said.
He noted that the detention facility itself makes up only about one-fourth of the total cost of the new center, with the remainder going to build new courtrooms, meeting rooms, and offices for probation staff, lawyers and judges.
The current juvenile-justice center at 12th Avenue and East Jefferson Street in the Central Area was built in 1952 and remodeled in 1972. Constantine called it “outmoded and dilapidated” and said there was no question that it had to be replaced.
“We need to build this center to bring together services and programs to help kids turn their lives around,” he said.
County Councilmember Larry Gossett said the “street heat” of protesters forced him and other officials to search for best practices around the country to reduce the number of incarcerated youth.
As the council’s only African-American member, he said, “It was tough for me to be challenged” by protesters saying “all you’re doing is setting up a new institution to jail blacks. It forced me to talk to my colleagues and say we gotta do better.”
Gossett said the county’s new initiative will put more focus on the root causes of crime, including poverty; lack of mental-health services and drug-addiction treatment; and high dropout rates.
“We’re confident we can ratchet down the numbers of incarcerated youth,” he said.
King County Superior Court Presiding Judge Susan Craighead said the court would work to reduce by half the number of youths currently jailed for probation violations and to offer youths incentives for good behavior rather than relying on detention.
She also noted that while the number of youths incarcerated has continued to fall in the county, the number removed from their homes because of abuse and neglect has continued to rise.
“Sadly, we often put youth in detention because we don’t have another safe place to put them. We desperately need alternatives,” Craighead said.
County Councilmember Joe McDermott said the council would seek an additional $4 million in the 2016 supplemental budget for new programs to support at-risk youth and keep them out of the criminal-justice system. Those programs including working with schools to reduce suspensions and expulsions, adding work opportunities for youths and expanding the resources and alternatives to jail available to public defenders representing juveniles in the criminal-justice system.