By Paul Kiefer
At the end of a Thursday in early March, 28 teenagers sat in the King County juvenile detention center on Alder Street in Seattle’s Central District. One had arrived in the facility earlier that day; another had spent nearly 640 days in detention for a first-degree rape charge.
The Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center, which opened quietly in February 2020, replaced the county’s aging Youth Services Center. The new justice center has 156 beds, and King County Executive Dow Constantine has said the county doesn’t intend to fill them all. Last July, Constantine made a commitment to guide the county toward an end to youth detention by 2025, promising to transition the new detention center to “other uses” and “[shift] public dollars away from systems that are rooted in oppression and into those that maintain public health and safety, and help people on a path to success.”
The new center was built next to the decaying, 69-year-old Youth Services Center. When it opened, the county offered tours to show off the pastel-colored walls, art collection and brightly lit common areas that set it apart from the old facility. The courtrooms in the old center were cramped and gave little privacy to young defendants, while the new facility’s courtrooms offer more breathing room. The new building includes a gym, a clinic, a library and a spiritual center, as well as a room stocked with donated clothes for young people to wear to court appearances or job interviews. But the windowless cells and steel doors are a reminder that the purpose of the new building is unchanged.
“If you look at some of the young people who are engaged in some of these most serious offenses, I have some serious questions about how we how we’re going to ensure public safety and also have no detention facility at all. It may be something that looks very much like detention, but are we going to call it something different and claim that we’re at zero youth detention?” Jimmy Hung, King County Prosecutor’s Office
The final steps toward the goal of ending youth detention by 2025 will require the county to agree to non-detention-based alternatives that can support young people in the most dire circumstances—including people for whom the county doesn’t see a space in the existing restorative justice programs.
It will also depend on how the entities guiding the process—both in county government and in the nonprofit sector—define the “end of youth detention.”
Of the 28 young people incarcerated in King County on March 4, nearly half were charged as adults for for first-degree assault, attempted murder or murder charges; they will move to adult detention centers after their 18th birthdays. Held alongside them were others held for more minor crimes, including one young person charged with misdemeanor assault and another charged with possession of a stolen vehicle.
“There are a handful of cases where someone might scratch their head and ask, why that kid is being held for a misdemeanor,” said Jimmy Hung, who heads the juvenile division at the King County Prosecutor’s Office. “What’s listed their charge provides the legal basis for a judge to deprive them of their freedom. But if you were to have access to the social file, these kids have multiple prior cases in the system.” Many have unstable housing and are dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues—”the kinds of dysfunction that may prompt the judge to decide that there are no better options, and that detention is the safest place for this young person right now,” Hung said.
Hung believes that the county’s decision to hold those young people in jail instead of referring them to service providers means that all other aspects of our society have failed, and that “the failure is presenting itself when the best option is locking the kid up in detention.” Bringing an end to that practice, Hung said, will require the county to keep scaling up the services it can provide to young people in crisis.
Allan Nance, the director of King County’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, agrees. “If we are going to get to zero, that means that we have to control the front door,” he said. “Controlling the front door means working upstream: addressing inequities in schools, in housing and in access to health care.”
Nance added that there are ways to offer treatment and support to young people after they wind up before a court—in his mind, the detention center is not a catchment basin for young people who can’t be rehabilitated without being isolated. But the process of closing the detention center, he said, requires a “a commitment to not only serve the wellbeing of the young people, but to do it in a way that doesn’t compromise community safety.” Continue reading “What’s Next in King County’s Path to Ending Youth Detention?”