King County Announces Measures to Attack Racial Disparity in Juvenile Justice System

King County Executive Dow Constantine and Superior Court Presiding Judge Susan Craighead were joined by Metropolitan King County Councilmembers Larry Gossett, Joe McDermott and Dave Upthegrove today to announce new measures to further reduce both the county’s youth detention population and the unacceptable racial disparities growing within it.

“Racial disparity has no place in our justice system here in King County, especially not in systems responsible for the well-being of our youth,” said Executive Constantine. “That’s why I am taking an aggressive approach to further limited the use of detention for young people. Confronting the cause of racial disparity – in criminal justice and throughout society – will require the partnership of everyone in the community, and we are ready to work with anyone who is willing to work with us.”

“We share these goals, and recognize we need to think of how to create more alternatives to detention,” said Presiding Judge Craighead. “Superior Court commits to make every effort to avoid detention for these young people except when absolutely necessary.”

The actions signal a paradigm shift in management of the county’s juvenile justice system toward restorative justice, a move initiated by the Superior Court bench. In a letter to the Seattle City Council, county leaders wrote, “We commit to ending disproportionality in the juvenile justice system.  We commit to decriminalizing homelessness and mental illness. We commit to partnering with our schools and our communities to provide all youth with more options and opportunities.”

In the short term, Judge Craighead said the court has identified two goals for reducing the number of youth in detention: 1) judges and commissioners will avoid the use of detention for status offenders, such as youth who run away from home, except when their lives or safety are in danger, and 2) with proposed new investments in county programs, the bench further commits to reducing the use of detention for youth who violate terms of a probation order, with a goal of a 50 percent reduction within one year.

For long-term reduction of detention, Executive Constantine directed project staff to cap at 112 the number of juvenile detention beds at the voter-approved Children and Family Justice Center, yielding a maximum practical capacity of approximately 80. With 212 beds at the existing facility, the cap at the replacement Center will cut the number of detention beds by almost half.

Space originally designed to hold 32 beds at the replacement Center can hold non-detention programs operated by a non-profit provider.

Councilmembers are committed to funding several programs advanced by the community to reduce disproportionality in the juvenile justice system, including investing in innovative public defense programs, community based efforts to engage youth constructively and working more proactively with schools.

King County Council members Larry Gossett, Dave Upthegrove and Joe McDermott say they’re ready to support more programs that divert youth from detention.

“King County’s ‘paradigm shift’ will be guided by the premise that we will build a juvenile justice system that values all our children and decriminalizes the misbehavior that some children experience,” said Gossett. “Our system must provide the needed services and care to help our young people become productive human beings if our county is to live up to our namesake of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. County.”

“Addressing today’s racial disproportionality in the juvenile justice system requires a significant change in the way that we support youth in King County,” said McDermott. “Our commitment to fund efforts that span a spectrum of activities that will aid youth in avoiding or navigating the juvenile justice system demonstrates our resolve to achieving this fundamental shift.”

“For a lot of reasons, too many kids from communities of color in South King County are being locked up,” Upthegrove said. “We need to take significant action now to keep all kids out of jail and to help all kids succeed.”

The goals and public engagement plan are also outlined in a Race and Equity Assessment and Action Plan report that is being submitted today to the Seattle City Council.

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