Seattle’s construction department has issued a decision allowing King County to move ahead with a controversial new youth courthouse and jail project.
Seattle officials have issued a decision allowing King County to move ahead with building a new youth courthouse and jail.
The Thursday decision by the Department of Construction and Inspections approves the county’s request for a master-use permit, pending a 14-day appeal period.
Activists who oppose the new youth jail and youth incarceration in general have been urging Mayor Ed Murray to block the project by withholding the permit.
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Murray sought to distance himself from the issue Wednesday night, saying the permit decision would be made according to technical criteria related to land use and environmental issues. The mayor said it would be impossible for him to intervene.
“Our limited role was to review King County’s technical documents and determine if the identified environmental impacts of the proposal are mitigated,” said Bryan Stevens, a spokesman for the construction department. “We found no basis in the code to deny this project.”
Rose Harriot, an opponent, said the mayor “cannot wash his hands” of the decision.
“Mayor Murray had the power stop this racist jail-building project in its tracks,” Harriot said. “His refusal to do so translates into support.”
Ardo Hersi, another activist, said she’s “really surprised but not really surprised.”
“These politicians say they care about the people who elect them and who they work for. But in all honesty, they don’t, and their actions are proving that,” she said.
The 20-year-old has been battling the project with the groups Youth Undoing Institutional Racism and Ending the Prison Industrial Complex. She said local leaders can’t relate.
“Most politicians are older, white men. They don’t know what it’s like to have cops in your neighborhood, in your high school, cops picking on you,” she said, vowing to continue opposing the project.
In 2012, voters approved a $210 million levy to replace the existing courthouse and detention center in the Central Area.
Proponents of the project argue the existing juvenile-justice complex is outdated and dilapidated. They say the new complex, formally known as the Children and Family Justice Center, will be much better.
Opponents say voters were misled in 2012 by a ballot title that didn’t mention detention. They object to youth incarceration, particularly in a county where black youth are much more likely to be detained than youth of other races.
King County’s presiding judge, Susan Craighead, hailed Thursday’s decision. But she also expressed admiration for the opponents.
“I’ve discovered that the pressure they’ve put on us has forced us to come up with a lot of creative ways to keep kids out of detention,” Craighead said.
In a statement, City Councilmember Mike O’Brien expressed disappointment.
“Mounting evidence reinforces what communities of color have been telling us for years: Jailing youth perpetuates a vicious cycle of violence, makes detainees more likely to reoffend, and disproportionately impacts people of color, particularly black youth,” he said.
O’Brien called the project’s 112 jail beds inconsistent with a council resolution last year that endorsed a vision of Seattle as a city with zero youth detention.
Despite the construction department’s technical approval of the plans, “I urge the county to go back to the drawing board,” he said.
Rather than begin building a new juvenile-justice complex now, the county should make repairs, O’Brien said. He said he’s toured the existing complex.
“The jail facility is not a gem, but it’s not falling down,” the council member said.
“If enough folks in power want to do something different, I think we can do something different,” O’Brien added.
The existing detention center is in better shape than the courthouse, which lacks heat, air conditioning and potable water, acknowledged Craighead, the judge.
But the detention center “is from an era when children were treated very much like criminals,” Craighead said. “It feels like a jail. We want to take a more modern approach … that will be less stigmatizing to youth.”
The new detention center would have half the number of beds as the existing one, said Cameron Satterfield, a county spokesman.
It would also include a new library, a spiritual center, mental-health services and an activity room dedicated to creative writing, yoga, improv-performance training and mentoring programs, Satterfield said.