Opponents of a voter-approved plan to replace King County’s outdated juvenile courthouse and jail packed Seattle City Hall on Tuesday to voice their belief that children accused of crimes shouldn’t be detained.
But a Seattle City Council committee nevertheless approved a zoning change allowing the county to build its new juvenile-justice complex the way it wants to, and the full council will take up the issue Oct. 13. The committee vote was 2 to 0, with one abstention.
The county needs the council’s approval for the change because the current juvenile-justice complex and its planned replacement are located at 12th Avenue and East Alder Street in Seattle’s Central District.
The project’s opponents, who hoisted handmade signs with slogans like “Education Not Incarceration” and “Vote With Your Heart,” want the council to use the zoning request as leverage over the county.
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They say the county should conduct a “racial-impact analysis,” predicting how the new complex might affect minority groups, before moving the project along.
While the average daily population of the county’s juvenile jail dropped 69 percent since 1998 to just 57 detainees, African-American youngsters are much more likely to wind up behind bars. They represent just 10 percent of the county’s juveniles but 42 percent of its detainees, according to county records.
“Who among you is willing to take a stand?” jail opponent James Williams asked the council’s land-use committee Tuesday.
“We all know that the construction of the (project) needs to be slowed down,” added Williams, a Tukwila resident and an organizer with the Ending the Prison Industrial Complex campaign.
County officials say they need the zoning change to move forward with a project that must be completed as soon as possible to best serve local youth.
In August 2012, county voters, by about 55 percent to 45 percent, approved a $210 million levy to replace the current juvenile-justice complex, called the King County Youth Services Center.
The existing facility, which consists of a 212-bed jail, courtrooms and offices for probation staff, lawyers and judges, is inadequate and falling apart, officials say.
It was built in 1952 and added to over the years.
“It’s not aging well,” said Carolyn Duncan, spokeswoman for the county’s Facilities Management Division. “It has a tendency to flood, and the roof leaks everywhere.”
The new facility, renamed the King County Children and Family Justice Center, is still in the early planning phases, and the county has yet to hire a contractor.
But officials have said its $40 million jail section likely will contain 144 beds.
They say the jail will incorporate various features aimed at making the juvenile-justice system more helpful, including a less-restrictive “transitional unit.”
“We’re designing it so it can be separated from the rest of detention by a wall and be open to the outside by doors. I imagine more softer materials, furniture you can move around; like a college dorm,” said Claudia Balducci, a criminal-justice improvement manager for the county who is also the mayor of Bellevue.
County officials said Tuesday they already analyze racial disparities within the juvenile-justice system on a regular basis and will continue to do so.
They presented the Seattle council with a draft agreement Tuesday that sets out a plan for the city and county to jointly address such disparities while seeking additional community input on the project as it moves ahead.
That satisfied two council members. Mike O’Brien, who chairs the committee, and Tim Burgess, the council’s president, voted to approve the zoning change.
Councilmember Nick Licata abstained because county officials wouldn’t agree to put the project on hold pending the racial-impact analysis requested by opponents.
“I was proud of Nick Licata, but I was very disappointed in the other council members,” said Dustin Washington, also of End the Prison Industrial Complex.
Aside from their philosophical disagreement with incarceration, the opponents are concerned about the county selling off part of the Central District site to private developers, Washington said.
Burgess acknowledged Tuesday that the juvenile-justice system needs work but said some youth who commit violent crimes must be detained.
“That’s just the cold, hard reality,” he said.
O’Brien said he is supporting the zoning change on the condition that county officials make good on their promise to put young black men “at the center of the conversation” about the project from now on.
In Washington, children between the ages of 9 and 17 can be housed in a juvenile jail. State law forbids youth 8 and younger from being charged with a crime.
William Hayes, director of the county’s Department of Youth and Juvenile Detention, said there is no option other than to incarcerate some children.
“Some of them are a threat to themselves and society if they’re released. We’re trying to figure out how to get them to change direction. Some of them are lost, unfortunately.”