Opponents of a new King County juvenile-detention facility, including the Seattle Human Rights Commission and the local NAACP chapter, are asking Seattle officials to deny the project a key land-use permit.
Several local organizations are asking Seattle officials to deny King County the land-use permit it needs to build a new youth courthouse and jail.
Lawyer Knoll Lowney wrote a letter to the Seattle Department of Planning and Development on Nov. 15 on behalf of the groups, including End the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC)-Seattle, the Seattle Human Rights Commission and the Seattle-King County NAACP.
In 2012, voters approved a $210 million levy to replace the county’s current juvenile-justice complex at 12th Avenue and East Alder Street in Seattle.
“The construction of a new youth jail with a 50-year life-span would perpetuate a failed and racist social policy that locks up youths of color in disproportionate numbers,” says Lowney’s letter, which was first reported on by The Stranger.
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Though the average daily population at the current building has dropped from 212 inmates in 2002 to about 60, African-American youth are much more likely to be detained. They represent 10 percent of the county’s youth but 50 percent of inmates.
The permit in question is one step on the county’s path toward building the Children and Family Justice Center, and Lowney’s letter is the most recent attempt by opponents to stop the project.
Last October, activists asked the Seattle City Council to reject a request for a zoning change giving county officials more flexibility in the project’s design. The council voted 8-1 to approve the change.
In February, opponents packed a Metropolitan King County Council meeting and spoke for hours against the project. The council voted 7-0 to approve a construction contract. State law requires the county to maintain a juvenile detention facility.
County officials responded to the pressure in March. County Executive Dow Constantine announced the complex scheduled to open in 2019 would have fewer beds than previously planned, and more support services.
He said the number of beds in the new building would be capped at 112, about half the capacity of the current complex, rather than nearly 150.
Seattle officials also responded. The Seattle Office of Civil Rights in June released a ”racial equity analysis” of the project. It recommended that the detention spaces in the new building be convertible to other uses and that health services be provided.
Activists, at a rally in August, criticized the analysis for failing to consider the possibility of the project not moving forward at all.
“We believe the jail shouldn’t be built, for moral and legal reasons, and we’ve been organizing around that for a long time,” said James Williams, of EPIC-Seattle. “I’m optimistic our work is going to have an impact.”
In September, the City Council voted 9-0 to adopt a resolution “endorsing a vision for the city of Seattle to become a city with zero use of detention for youth.”
The City Council will vote Monday on a 2016 budget that includes $600,000 for projects advancing the goal of zero detention for youth.
Constantine has said zero incarceration of youth “can only happen when there is no one under the age of 18 committing rape, robbery and murder.”
Lowney’s letter says most youth inmates “suffer from trauma, mental-health issues and/or abuse” made worse by incarceration. The letter says about 43 percent of the county’s youth inmates are detained for property crimes.
It says the city and county have failed to comply with the State Environmental Policy Act, in part by not considering the negative public-health impacts of youth incarceration. And it says the project falls short of certain land-use requirements.
Alexa Vaughn, a county spokeswoman, said the project does comply with the city’s land-use code.
Officials estimate about $40 million of the $210 million will be used to build the detention portion of the new complex.
“The rest of it will be focused on the courthouse and integrating the site with the neighborhood,” Vaughn said. “The new center will have several amenities that the current one doesn’t, including a day-care center, a resource center, a conference center open for community use (and) 10,200 square feet for youth program space.”
Though the new facility will have 112 beds, its practical maximum capacity will be about 80 inmates, Vaughn said. The extra beds will be required to house youth of different sexes, gang affiliations and offense levels in separate areas, she said.
Vaughn said county officials dispute other assertions in Lowney’s letter.
The city Department of Planning and Development has received more than 200 public letters since September arguing for and against the project. The King County Bar Association is supporting the project, but a coalition of law students at the University of Washington and Seattle University is opposing it, as is the Squire Park Community Council.