The Seattle City Council voted Monday to approve a zoning change that will give King County more design flexibility in building its new juvenile courthouse and jail.
The county had said it needed the change to move the project forward.
The vote was 8-to-1. The lone vote against the change was Councilmember Kshama Sawant. She sided with opponents of the new juvenile-justice complex who believe that children accused of crimes shouldn’t be detained.
The county needed the city’s approval because the current complex and its planned replacement are in Seattle — at 12th Avenue and East Alder Street in the Central District.
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The council’s land-use committee approved the change last month despite a show of force by opponents who displayed handmade signs with slogans such as “Education Not Incarceration.”
The opponents had asked the council to use the zoning request as leverage and said the county should conduct a “racial-impact analysis” before moving the project along.
While the population of the county’s juvenile jail has dropped 69 percent since 1998, to a daily average of 57 detainees, African Americans are much more likely to end up there. They comprise only 10 percent of the county’s juveniles but 42 percent of its detainees.
County officials said they needed the zoning change immediately in order to move ahead with the project quickly, noting that the existing jail, called the King County Youth Services Center, is outdated and in disrepair.
In August 2012, county voters, by about 55 to 45 percent, approved a $210 million levy to replace it with a new facility, to be called the King County Children and Family Justice Center.
Opponents questioned whether the money might be better spent on programs aimed at keeping youth out of trouble.
“Incarcerating children is inhumane,” Sawant said Monday before casting her vote.
“Seattle spends a total of less than $5 million a year on all the jobs programs for young people combined. Imagine the impact on crime if $200 million investment was made in youth jobs.”
But county officials said voters spoke when they approved the levy.
In response to the opposition, the city and county have agreed to a joint “statement of intent” to address racial disproportionality in the juvenile-justice system through a “race and social justice assessment and action plan” as the project moves forward.
The statement calls for an as-yet-unnamed third-party organization to gather input from community stakeholders, including youth.
It also calls for the city and county to urge school districts to reduce disciplinary suspensions, which often precede involvement in the juvenile-justice system.
The zoning change will take effect no earlier than April 1, rather than immediately, to allow time for the assessment.
But Monday’s vote was final. No matter what the assessment concludes, the change will stand.
“Everything that everybody has said about the injustices that are within the system right now is all true, and there are a lot of kids that are going to continue to go through this system while we figure this stuff out,” said Councilmember Sally Clark, who voted with the majority. “They deserve a better place to do that. They deserve better programming. They deserve better options. This project can make that possible.”
Judge Wesley Saint Clair, the county’s chief juvenile judge, said the county now has an opportunity to “engage in a productive conversation” with the jail’s opponents.
“I’m hoping we have not only the political will but also the courage to listen and engage and implement the suggestions,” he said.
Senait Brown, an activist with the campaign Ending the Prison Industrial Complex, says the opponents of the new jail will continue to organize against the project.
“The community is what’s going to make this change,” she said.
Daniel Beekman: 206-464-2164 or email@example.com