As construction moves ahead on the new King County youth detention center at 12th and Alder in the Central District, anti-incarceration activists continue the fight against the controversial project.
The $210 million youth detention center, which will replace the current facility in central Seattle, will feature 112 inmate beds and additional court rooms. King County officials refer to it as the “children and family justice center,” while the activists opposing its construction have dubbed it a “youth jail.” Ever since funding for the project was approved by the voters back in 2012, it has been one of the most contentious issues in Seattle politics, generating a sustained campaign of public protests and legal actions.
Activists argue that the new facility will perpetuate the disproportionate incarceration of youth of color, that youth detention is psychologically harmful to juveniles, and that the county should invest in alternatives to detention. County officials, on the other hand, claim that the existing, aging detention center — parts of which date back to 1952 — needs to be replaced and that overall youth incarceration has decreased over the years. (Minority youth are still disproportionately overrepresented among incarcerated youth in the detention center, however.)
At a July 17 press conference held in front of the project construction site, No New Youth Jail Coalition members touted the growing number of local organizations that oppose the new facility and decried the county’s decision to push ahead with construction.
“We’ve sustained a campaign for six years and we are now at a point where 120 organizations — and still counting — to date have signed on to a moratorium saying that King County must stop building this building, that we must move into a period of redesign, and we must put something in place that heals and does not do harm,” activist and former mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver said at the event. “There is a growing consensus in King County that Dow’s agenda to build this jail actually reflects Trump’s agenda. That it reflects the same ideas of perpetuating a racist system that is built on the backs of black and brown bodies.”
Elected officials — including Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien and Federal City Councilmember Jesse Johnson — and representatives from organizations such as the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, Columbia Legal Services, and environmental advocacy group Got Green also stood by anti-incarceration activists to condemn the project.
“What we have realized — and what brain science now realizes —i s that every person that is institutionalized is harmed; that in and of itself, locking someone up is inhumane,” said Merf Enham, executive director of Columbia Legal Services. “I call on Dow Constantine and our organizations to stop building this facility.”
Research has supported the notion that youth detention is psychologically damaging and ultimately counterproductive to public safety goals. A 2011 study by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (a subdivision of the U.S. Department of Justice) found that long-term incarceration of youth does not reduce the chance that they will reoffend. Other studies have shown that detention exacerbates existing mental and behavioral health conditions in youth, and, in fact, increases odds of recidivism.
Malou Chavez, deputy director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said at the press conference that the public should view the new youth detention center in the same negative light as the federal government’s incarceration of undocumented immigrants. “Let’s extend that same outrage and support to [youths] currently incarcerated and separated from their families here, and not just [the ones] in ICE custody,” she said.
Attempts by activists to halt the project through the courts have had mixed results. Following the passage of the 2012 tax levy financing the project, years of continued public protest ensued. In 2016, Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC)—an anti-prison advocacy group that has been aggressively campaigning against the project—sued King County, arguing that the the county misled voters in their description of the 2012 tax levy.
The case has gone all the way to the state Supreme Court, and could pose serious financial problems for the county if the levy is invalidated. According to emails obtained by anti-youth jail activists through a public records request, King County Budget Director Dwight Dively told county staff on that if the county were to lose this case before the state Supreme Court, they would have to turn to bonds for financing, and the annual debt service payments would have a “potentially catastrophic” effect on the county’s general fund, which is already spread thin. (Alex Fryer, a spokesperson for Executive Constantine, declined to comment on the emails or on potential future financing issues.)
In 2017, EPIC also filed an appeal with the Seattle Hearing Examiner’s Office to revoke a master use permit issued to King County by the City of Seattle in December 2016, which allowed them to go ahead with construction of the facility. If the permit had been invalidated, construction on the project would’ve ground to a halt. (The facility is currently slated to open in 2019.)
But EPIC’s appeal was dismissed by the hearing examiner, who argued that they didn’t have the authority to weigh in on the permit. A subsequent appeal to the King County Superior Court was also dismissed on grounds that EPIC failed to file its appeal within a mandated time frame. The group then pushed the case to the state Court of Appeals, who affirmed the lower court’s verdict on May 29. Knoll Lowney, EPIC’s attorney on the case, said that while the group hasn’t decided whether or not they are going to further appeal this ruling, it likely wouldn’t halt construction of the project at this point.“[The county] keep building, so it’s unlikely that a permit appeal is going to have a lot of impact given how slow the Supreme Court works,” he said. “The jail is being built. So, short of a judge requiring it to be torn down, it’s unlikely that the overall envelope is going to be changed.”