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Why does Seattle need a new youth jail?

A main corridor at the King County Juvenile Detention in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Isolde Raftery
A main corridor at the King County Juvenile Detention in Seattle's Central District. This building will be demolished after the new facility is constructed.

Hear about those local clergy members who chained themselves to a construction site? They were protesting a new youth detention facility.

As you read this, new cinder block walls are rising up right next door to the old facility in Seattle’s Central District. The Children and Family Justice Center, its new name, is expected to be completed in 2020. 

Attorney Nikkita Oliver, a member of the No New Youth Jail activist group (#NoNewYouthJail), and King County Executive Dow Constantine spoke with KUOW’s Bill Radke on The Record on separate days about the heated debate surrounding the new building.

We compared their arguments and added annotations with help from KUOW reporter Patricia Murphy, who is following the story. These are excerpts from separate interviews.

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "Dow Constantine", "style": "wide"}]]"We don't have any disagreement about the origins of teen violence or of youth acting out. We don't have any disagreement about the effect of detention or incarceration on kids.

"We have an argument about whether today, in the middle of 2018, we can do without detention entirely — because we clearly can't. So we have a choice: Old, lousy detention building, or some place new that's much better for the kids."

Patricia Murphy: The county is required by state law to have a youth detention facility, but we are not required to build it this way. That’s some of the feedback the county has gotten—that there are better ways to build what we need. In fact, Constantine commissioned a report that came out last year about how to do it better. If we did not have this youth detention facility, the only other options for violent offenders would be King County jail or the Norm Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, where we have historically housed juveniles charged as adults. It was not a good solution in the past because federal law says juveniles cannot interact with the general population. That left some kids in isolation and without services like education. As of March 2018, those kids have been returned to the juvenile detention center, pending court proceedings.

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "Nikkita Oliver", "style": "wide"}]]"No one has said that we need to go in today and close down the old facility. We acknowledged some repairs of that facility need to happen in order to ensure that it’s a healthy place to be. What we are saying is that by investing $233 million in a new facility, we're actually investing in a system that uses incarceration, and a punitive system as a means of getting people to pro-social behavior; we know that system doesn't work.

"We spend $243 million a year on things like Best Starts for Kids, community service providers, employment and education resources, housing and community development, mental health and drug dependency—far less than the amount of money we actually spend on jails, the sheriff and prosecution.

"We spend $638 million a year on jails and prosecution.

"We're building a facility, used to cage and incarcerate young people, that costs $233 million. It's actually going to set us up for the next 50 years to continue doing exactly what we've been doing."

Patricia Murphy: The project budget adopted by the King County Council is $219.2 million, according to Alex Fryer, a spokesperson for King County. Fryer also says the $638 million figure is incorrect. He says the county spent $359 million in 2017 through the Department of Juvenile and Adult Detention, prosecuting attorney’s office and other agencies. According to the county’s March 2018 report, average daily population in secure juvenile detention was 53, down from 90 ten years ago. The average stay in secure juvenile detention was around 11 days in 2017. According to King County’s website, the number of detention beds at the new facility is capped at 112, which is down from 212 beds available. Many of those beds may go empty. Most kids charged with crimes are not in detention but in diversion programs.

[asset-images[{"caption": "One of the halls at juvenile detention in Seattle. Although there are 212 beds in the current facility, fewer than 50 are usually in use. The average stay at the jail was 11 days last year.", "fid": "135425", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201704/cell7.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Isolde Raftery"}]][asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "Dow Constantine", "style": "wide"}]]"[If the new facility isn’t built], the kids will be left in a large, old decrepit facility that is by its very nature traumatizing.

"The new facility is not a place where you can simply walk out and leave. But it is a place that is much more respectful. It is much more in the nature of a therapeutic environment, and it’s a place where there's much more room for the kinds of programming and the help that the kids need to be able to do better in their lives."

Patricia Murphy: A tour given years ago showed brown running water and peeling paint. Another KUOW editor who visited more recently reported the HVAC system was not working correctly; classrooms were very hot or very cold. And when I visited this week, the building’s only elevator didn’t work.

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "Nikkita Oliver", "style": "wide"}]]"Prosecution is never respectful. ... I’m there regularly. I’m going to go there after I finish the segment with you actually, because I work with young people in that facility.

"According to the county's own report, the facility is in generally good condition, and requires $795,981 to remodel and make it usable."

Patricia Murphy: The report Oliver references is from a facility inspection in 2011. It does describe the facility as in “generally good condition,” but it also describes water penetrating through concrete block walls and leaking through window frames. The number Oliver mentions is the total project cost for addressing issues in the exterior and HVAC. Constantine told Bill Radke it would cost more to remodel the old facility than to build a new, smaller facility that can reduce its secure detention facility over time. The county estimates repairs would cost $40 million.

Oliver continued:

"Our county is huge. It is over 2,000 square miles. Having a single place where young people can receive services—that is also in the place where they experience traumatic prosecution and jail time—is not going to serve young people in our county.

"We actually need to dislocate services from jails and courts and then we need to put them in young people’s communities so we can make sure those resources are in a place that is accessible to them.

Patricia Murphy: I have heard criticism that services are in the wrong place. Less than 25 percent of referrals to detention come from Seattle; most come from South King County (e.g. Tukwila, Federal Way and Auburn). Some families have to travel significant distances to participate and that can be a huge strain. Constantine told Bill Radke you can scatter the diversion programs but not the courts. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg told me that regional services are a great idea but at least a decade away.

"If we're willing to spend $233 million on a facility that's going to continue to drive us towards a punitive nature of justice, as opposed to restorative, the real question is how much are we willing to spend in Dr. Martin Luther King County to actually serve young people well and end the school-to-prison pipeline?

"Dr. M.L.K. said there is no time like the present to do the right thing. So regardless of how much it's going to cost us, if zero detention is something we want to achieve—if it is more than aspirational—we would be willing to spend those dollars.

"We spend 60 percent more on prosecution, jails and courts than we do on those services that could end the school-to-prison pipeline.

"If we're going to take this seriously and we look at budgets as a moral document of what we value in King County we have to start moving money around.

Patricia Murphy: According to the county spokesperson, the $359 million spent in 2017 on juvenile and adult detention includes prosecution, defense and other services including diversion programs and therapeutic courts. King County has made significant investments in trying to keep kids out of jails. For example, $62.6 million in the Best Starts for Kids in 2017. But what they do not have yet is critical mass, meaning they don’t have enough people doing enough of the work yet. A lot of that isn’t about a lack of willingness. It usually comes down to funding, training and even liability concerns.

Update 5/16/2018 11:03 a.m.: This story has been updated to include additional responses from Nikkita Oliver who posted comments to Twitter following publication of this story. 

Additional reporting by Bond Huberman and Brie Ripley.