What’s Next in King County’s Path to Ending Youth Detention?

by Paul Kiefer

(This article was originally published on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.)

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.

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 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.

But despite the new alternatives, the number of young people spending the night in cells in the mural-bedecked facility on Alder Street has effectively plateaued. And racial disparities persist: nearly half of the children currently in detention are Black, and a quarter are Latinx; only a fifth are white. The county still jails young people charged with more the most serious felonies — including first-degree assault, robbery, and murder — as a default. Finding alternatives for most of the young people in detention facing serious charges, and for those who have passed through the prosecutor’s office multiple times, will be a delicate process.

“If you look at some of the young people who are engaged in some of these most serious offenses,” said Hung, “I have some serious questions about 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?”

Some restorative justice advocates — including people who spent time in youth detention centers — challenge the additional scrutiny shown to young people charged with “serious” crimes, particularly violent ones. Dolphy Jordan, a Seattle-based member of the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network, spent 21 years in Washington prisons for a murder he committed when he was 16. From his perspective, a restorative justice model that automatically divides “violent offenders” from their peers is counterproductive.

“We separate the two to a fault,” he said. “When you make that distinction, the kid feels it. They feel like they have to act differently. It’s just sending the wrong message — basically saying that one kid is better than the other, when they’re both redeemable.”

Though the distinction between “serious” felonies and other charges usually rests on the existence of a victim, Jordan and other advocates pointed to a hole in that reasoning. “Young Men of Color ages 16 to 25 are the primary drivers of long-term sentences in Washington State,” said Martina Kartman, the founder of Collective Justice, a victim-focused restorative justice program. “But they’re also overlooked as victims. The same person who goes through the justice system as a victim one day goes through as a defendant the next.” If the county wants to find alternatives to detention for the young people facing serious felony charges, she said, the solution may involve offering victim support services more widely.

Other advocates noted that the county is still reluctant to give young people multiple chances to take part in restorative justice programming. Sean Goode, the director of Choose 180, said ending youth detention as it currently exists will require the county to invest more faith in programs like his.

“If a young person goes through programming and they end up slipping back into behavior that’s challenging or problematic, then people look at the work and say, ‘Oh, well, this program didn’t work,’” he said. “It’s quite possible that the treatment that we used wasn’t the appropriate treatment. But there are other treatments that are available. We should be allowed the same grace that the criminal legal system has been shown.”

Though some amount of recidivism is unavoidable, the outcomes of the county’s diversionary programs have shown some promising improvements. A program review from 2014 showed just under 20% of youth diverted to Choose 180’s program committed additional crimes within a year — only 5% lower than a control group with similar characteristics. By 2020, Choose 180’s annual report noted that 96% of the young people it served did not reoffend within a year.

And the variety of diversionary services available to young people is slowly growing. Four of the most prominent existing programs — Choose 180, Community Passageways, Creative Justice, and Collective Justice — are working with the King County Department of Public Defense to form Restorative Community Pathways, a consortium of service providers for children facing potential misdemeanor or first-time felony charges. The county prosecutor’s office expects to refer between 700 and 800 young people to the program by 2022 or 2023: as much as 80% of the prosecutor’s current juvenile caseload. The consortium will also include programming for young people charged in adult court; under current Washington law, kids aged 16 to 17 charged with serious violent felonies are automatically placed in adult court.

But Goode and other advocates for diversionary programs also see the need for some means to separate young people from their community during a serious behavioral crisis. If someone had an infectious disease, Goode said, “You would isolate that person, keep them away from others for a period of time to keep them from being a harm to themselves or others, and simultaneously treat the disease.” Although that model sounds similar to youth detention, Goode said, choosing new caregivers and administrators would be “a game changer.”

Any long-term facilities that might replace the current detention center, Goode said, would need to be staffed by people with experience and training resembling that of the case managers and counselors who currently work with restorative justice programs in King County. Similarly, Jordan suggested that young people who are “unable to have a positive response” to out-patient restorative justice programs might need a “long term in-patient care” facility staffed by counselors who have experienced mental health crises, substance abuse, systemic racism, and housing insecurity.

Goode also emphasized the importance of the physical space used to house children in need of long-term care and supervision. “There’s nothing about that new building that feels like a therapeutic space,” he said. “It has great artwork and lounge areas, but that doesn’t make it therapeutic.”

Hung knows that the aesthetic changes to the detention center don’t amount to a kind of restorative justice. The new building’s amenities and art collection are “more respectful,” he said, “but ultimately, it’s a kid jail. I won’t mince words about that.”

As King County continues to scale down its use of detention for children, the future of the new facility on Alder Street remains uncertain. “It could become a facility that serves an older population of young adults,” said Nance. “It could be a medical clinic. It could be a service center for homeless youth and their families, or a place where young people could have access to detox services. The repurposing is the easier part of the conversation.”

The greater challenge, he said, is reducing the need for those services — and deciding whether an end to youth detention is actually the end of detention in its current form. King County hasn’t resolved how it will tackle the next four years of juvenile justice reform. According to Nance, his department plans to convene a work group — including judges, counselors, prosecutors, and young people themselves — to outline the county’s next steps, but the timeline for closing or transforming the jail on Alder Street is still unknown.

Paul Faruq Kiefer is a journalist, historian, and born-and-bred Seattleite. He has published work with KUOW, North Carolina Public Radio, and The Progressive magazine, and he is currently working on a podcast for KUAF in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Paul reports on police accountability for PubliCola.

Featured Image: A No New Youth Jail advocate protests outside the Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center. (Photo: DJ Martinez)

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