By Erica C. Barnett
In July 2020, King County Executive Dow Constantine committed publicly to closing down the Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC), saying it was time to shift “public dollars away from systems that are rooted in oppression and into those that maintain public health and safety.”
“Today I commit King County to converting the remaining youth detention units at the CFJC to other uses as quickly as possible, and no later than 2025,” Constantine announced in a Twitter thread that noted the connection between police murders of Black people and mass incarceration. About half the kids King County incarcerates are Black, a group that makes up about 6 percent of the county population, and about 18 percent are white, compared to 69 percent of the county.
Constantine’s announcement came at a time of heightened public scrutiny of the criminal legal system in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis. The youth detention center had opened just five months earlier, replacing a decrepit, 212-bed facility next door, and stood largely empty because of COVID and a general reduction in youth arrests. The population would hover at about 20 young people throughout the next year, peaking at 26 and dipping to just 17 in August 2021.
One year later, however, the trend has reversed. In August, the average daily population at the youth jail was 41; on October 3, it was 42, including four kids charged as adults. While the population at the jail has grown, the number of guards at the jail has declined; as of September, 22 of 91 juvenile detention officer positions were unfilled, down from about six vacancies in the fall of 2020—a shortfall of 24 percent.
The timeline for closing down the youth detention center could also get a reality check. Closing the jail requires alternatives to incarceration that don’t exist yet, and the process to come up with those alternatives, which will likely include restrictive housing for youth who present a danger to the community, is proceeding slowly.
The increase in the number of young people incarcerated at the CFJC is exacerbated by a similarly steep decline in the number of people working at the jail. A representative of the Juvenile Detention Guild told PubliCola that juvenile corrections officers are leaving their jobs more than twice as fast as the county can hire replacements. Understaffing has also impacted other positions at the facility, which has at times been short on nurses and other medical staff. The high attrition rate has created a shortage not just of workers but experience—a gap that shows no sign of closing even as the county ramps up financial incentives to get new hires in the door.
Understaffing has contributed to the frequent use of solitary confinement, a practice that persists even though it was officially banned in 2017. Jail officials acknowledge that they use “room confinement” when there aren’t enough staff to let kids into common areas safely, but there is no legal distinction between “room confinement” and other euphemisms for isolating kids in their cells for up to 20 hours a day.
Solitary confinement leads to stress, boredom, and fights, and has contributed to a reported uptick in assaults on guards and other staff. According to the juvenile guards’ union representative, “We hire staff who want to work with youth, but they are leaving [because] it is an unsafe work environment, we have to lock youth in their dorms for extended periods of time, [and we] do not have sufficient staffing to provide services to the youth.”
King County officials are aware that keeping kids in their cells is a problem, but the use of the practice has been escalating. In July, there were 13 days when kids were locked in their cells between 18 and 20 hours a day because of short staffing at the jail. Additionally, an independent monitor’s report released in May found a “significant increase” in the number of times youth were put in “restrictive housing” (solitary confinement) because of a risk of “imminent and significant physical harm to the youth or others,” along with a spike in the length of this form of confinement; in the first quarter of this year, 41 kids were put in restrictive housing for an average of 6 hours per session.
Nick Straley, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, says the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) is skirting laws that were passed specifically to prevent the department from doing exactly what it’s doing now. “The King County Council should get involved and pass strict requirements that force DAJD to do the right thing because we know they aren’t” on their own, Straley said.
King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay—who, like most of the nine county council members, visited the CFJC recently to get a better sense of conditions at the jail—said he was “shocked” to learn recently that the county still effectively allows solitary confinement for youth.
“If we literally don’t have the staffing to monitor people, I understand why that creates a different kind of situation, but it still is alarming, because from an experiential perspective rather than a technical perspective, the youth experience that the same way,” Zahilay said. “All the reasons we don’t want solitary confinement for youth are still true in that scenario, and we have to do everything we can to change those circumstances.”
For adolescents, confinement is a particularly harsh punishment, depriving them of not only of chances to interact with other kids and adults but making it harder to schedule visits with attorneys and family members. During visits, kids are separated from their family members by Plexiglas, depriving them of the chance to hug their parents or hold their own children.
“There have been issues with parents not being able to have contact with their kids and only being able to see each other through Plexiglas,” a COVID-era innovation that prevents direct contact between family members and incarcerated youth, CLS’ Straley says. “The reality is that you’ve got the bare minimum level of humane treatment, and simply not having enough staff isn’t the only reason. They need to have more staff, and/or they need to have fewer kids in jail.”
There’s little consensus about why the county is locking up more kids at a time when youth detention is supposedly on a path to extinction. Jimmy Hung, who leads the juvenile division of the King County Prosecutor’s Office, attributes the reversal to an uptick in violent crime among both young people and adults. “And it’s not isolated to King County; it’s throughout the country,” Hung said. “We are dealing with aftermath of a once-in-a-century global pandemic, and that has also collided with the continuing escalation and increase in just the sheer number of firearms we have in our community.”
Straley believes the “perception out there that crime is running out of hand” is also contributing to harsher sentences from judges. “I think that perception is not accurate, but that’s the perception, and judges are aware of that and they adjust the sentence accordingly,” he said.
A DADJ spokesman, Noah Haglund, said another reason more kids are being detained is that incarcerated youth are being incarcerated longer, particularly the small percentage of kids charged as adults, whose average stay at the CFJC is 284 days; for kids detained on juvenile charges, it’s 17. Both averages have increased over the last five years.
Whatever the reasons, the number of kids at the youth jail is growing, and the number of staff at the jail is not keeping up.
DAJD director Allen Nance, appointed to the position last month after three years as head of the juvenile division, told PubliCola recently that the department “recognize[s]that not only do we need to do a better job recruiting quality folks to work with our young people in custody, but we also have to work diligently to implement strategies to keep the employees that we have today.”
Currently, the department offers hiring bonuses of $7,500 for new hires and $15,000 for lateral hires, as well as $5,000 to any county staffer who recruits a new detention officer for the adult or youth detention center. (Jobs at the adult jail pay slightly better).
However, the county lacks any significant programs to retain jail staffers once they’re hired—a major problem, given how many leave after they experience the challenges of the job; according to the union representative, “many staff will forfeit the money versus staying due to conditions” at the jail, including low morale, lack of support from DAJD leadership, poor schedules, and a lack of transparency about what will happen to CFJC staff if and when the facility closes.
Rod Dembowski, a King County council member who has been skeptical of the 2025 closure date, said during a recent council meeting that one reason the CFJC may be having trouble hiring guards is that the jobs offer no long-term security. “Why would someone come on to this job or stay in this job if it’s going to be gone in two or three years?” Dembowski said. “It’s not a real great career incentive and that may be hampering us.”
Hiring bonuses remain the primary tool the county uses to recruit new guards at both the juvenile and adult jail, which is also facing a crippling staff shortage. But county rules require newly hired jail staff to pay part of their bonuses back if they stay less than three years, which means that a guard hired today would have to stay at the CFJC until 2025, when the facility is supposed to close, with no guarantee of a new position.
“Our office’s position has always been that zero youth detention is a goal that we should strive for, and it’s aspirational. I don’t believe that we can truly reach zero youth detention before I’m gone, but maybe for my daughter and my grandkids we can see that [happen].”—King County Prosecutor’s Office Juvenile Division Director Jimmy Hung
At the same time, the juvenile detention department currently relies heavily on mandatory overtime, which falls primarily on new hires. Nance, the DAJD director, said “we definitely intend to reduce over-reliance on mandatory overtime, and in fact, incentivize individuals to voluntarily work overtime,” but did not offer specifics when we asked him about the issue in September.
Nance also said the department is “in the process of finalizing” retention incentives for existing staff, “recognizing that those individuals who have already made the commitment to stay at the detention facility through 2025 deserve an opportunity to work in an environment where they are valued, where they where they are well compensated, and where we go above and beyond wherever we possibly can to support their continued employment in the department.”
Nance did not offer more details about the department’s strategy to keep the staff it has.
Nor is it clear whether the youth detention center will actually close in 2025—or ever. Earlier this year, planning for the closure shifted from the DAJD to the Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS) in recognition of the fact that closing the youth detention center will require standing up community-based alternatives to incarceration, including housing that is more humane than a jail.
The county has established an advisory committee, made up of community members and King County staff, to come up with recommendations for phasing out youth incarceration, and signed a sole-source contract with an Oakland-based consultant, the Burns Institute, to lead the discussions. So far, according to participants, the meetings have tended to consist of discursive conversations about values and norms; during a recent 90-minute meeting, most of the first hour was taken up by round-robin responses to the prompt “what does safety mean to me?” with about 10 minutes at the end for brief breakout sessions that touched on policy issues.
A report on the closure planning process released in June does note one bit of progress: The addition of a fifth “phase” that will have to happen before the youth jail closes. “There may still be a need for secure detention in the most complex cases until the infrastructure and capacity of the continuum of community-based alternatives to detention are fully developed, funded, and implemented,” the report says. “Additionally, young people in detention will need sufficient time for the resolution of their cases.”
Last month, Constantine told PubliCola that whether the CFJC will close in 2025 or at some later date “depends on whether we are able to more quickly deal with backlogs that we have in detention” that are resulting in higher jail populations and longer stays. “And then it has to do with that community-based committee being able to identify real alternatives that will allow us to transform that centralized detention space into something that’s more productive.”
Hung, perhaps befitting his role as a prosecutor, is less optimistic. An advocate for the county’s new Restorative Community Pathways program, which provides alternatives to jail for youth facing their first felony charge, Hung says he still believes there will be a need to hold young people in jail for the most serious kinds of crimes, “when they truly pose a danger to themselves or others.”
“Our office’s position has always been that zero youth detention is a goal that we should strive for, and it’s aspirational,” Hung said. “I’ve lived in King County basically my whole life, and I don’t believe that we can truly reach zero youth detention before I’m gone, but maybe for my daughter and my grandkids we can see that [happen].”
Sean Goode, the founder and director of the youth diversion program CHOOSE 180, says he believes young people who pose a risk to their communities can be “quarantined for a period of time for their safety and the safety of others and get access to the kind of community supports that they need” in a place that doesn’t look or feel like a jail. Despite the colorful murals and bright common areas in the new youth detention center, Goode says that “there’s nothing therapeutic about the places that they’re forced to live in,” which are still locked cells with narrow windows and steel doors.
Goode agrees with Hung that three years may not be enough to end youth incarceration, but for different reasons; like other advocates for criminal legal system reform, he says it’s going to take time to galvanize support and create both upstream interventions (engaging kids early) and downstream services (to disrupt the cycle of incarceration.”We need to imagine a way forward that truly engages healing early on, not just for the young people that have been causing harm but for the communities who have been harmed as well,” Goode said.
“I believe that having a date is important. I’m just not confident that it can be done in a way that doesn’t reimagine [detention] in a manner that’s just as harmful.”