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Juvenile Justice Center Moves Forward Over Cries Of Protest

KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols
Not your average County Council meeting: civil rights advocates sung, danced and filibustered, but failed to derail a proposed juvenile detention center.

The Metropolitan King County Council approved an agreement with a developer Monday to build a new juvenile detention center near Yesler Terrace. Civil rights advocates gave four hours of public testimony against the project. 

Protesters crammed the aisles and sat in seats usually reserved for council staff. They ranged from age 7 to gray haired senior citizens.

Out in the lobby, Edward Mayer spoke about how his brother's life was destroyed by the juvenile justice system back in Pennsylvania, where he came from. 

“I saw him go to jail when he was 12 years old for stealing a car," and it escalated from there, said Mayer. "I mean, once he got in that system, it seemed like he was going back and forth to court with my mom all the time."

Eventually, Mayer said, his brother was arrested for attempted murder and kidnapping. "I truly believe that once he got into the juvenile justice system, it just perpetuated things.”

Now Mayer sees that same system destroying lives in his community of Rainier Beach. 

Many at the County Council meeting gave their testimony quietly. Kshama Sawant was among the first.

Others showed their anger. Like James Williams, who yelled, "You don’t want to answer to the people. You don’t want to do what’s right for the youth. You need to do better!” At one point, a guard attempted to forcibly remove Williams, who had refused to leave the podium.

The crowd rose up to protect him. They chanted, “Let him go! Let him go!” The council let him go.

As people ran out of personal things to say, others tried to filibuster the council by reading from an Angela Davis book on prison reform.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Councilmember Rod Dembowski", "fid": "115223", "style": "placed_left", "uri": "public://201502/Dembowski3.JPG", "attribution": ""}]]Councilmember Rod Dembowski said he was inspired. “It was some of the best testimony I’ve heard in my two years here on the council." 

Dembowski said an average of 50 young people are incarcerated every day in King County. Half of them are African American youth, which Dembowski called “a totally unacceptable percentage.”

Dembowski said the number of incarcerated youth has dropped way down since the year 2000, when 200 kids entered detention in King County every day. And that’s reflected in the new center, which has a quarter fewer beds than the old one.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Conceptual Sketch for the Children & Family Justice Center", "fid": "115221", "style": "placed_left", "uri": "public://201502/CFJC-Conceptual-Sketch2.jpg", "attribution": "Credit King County"}]]Dembowski said the center will have more social services, some of which are currently located farther away. He also said we have to spend more on programs for youth that would help them avoid detention completely.

Many in the skeptical audience said that King County talks about progressive values, but doesn’t follow through. 

After four hours of public testimony, the council pushed through the vote through over the cries of protesters.

State law requires that the county have a facility for juvenile detention, and the existing one is crowded and unsafe.

Design of the voter-approved, $210 million facility will begin later this year.