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Seattle city council to vote on ending youth detention

Resolution would see city aim for zero juvenile detention, amid community-led efforts to stop construction of new jail

Seattle’s City Council will vote Wednesday on a resolution calling for the end of youth detention and develop policies that eliminate the need for the practice.

The resolution comes amid a years-long community-led movement to prevent a new juvenile detention center from being constructed. Organizers of the movement argue that there are significant racial disparities in the way that youth detention is used. Official data shows that African-American children in Washington are detained at a rate four times higher than the average, according to the text of Resolution 31614.

The resolution’s actions were recommended by the Seattle Office for Civil Rights, a city governmental body that found racial inequalities in arrest rates, detention, sentencing and prison population in the King County Children and Family Justice Center — the youth detention facility.

City Council member Mike O'Brien, who sponsored the resolution, says it has strong support and is likely to pass. Assuming it does, Seattle will then begin developing policies aimed at keeping kids out of jail with the help of local social justice and anti-racism groups, O'Brien added. The measure will be voted on in the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee Wednesday and if passed will move forward in a final vote on Monday, O'Brien said.

Instead of simply building a new detention facility, the resolution proposes that city resources be allocated for alternatives to youth incarceration — including more social services for at-risk youth. Youth detention was estimated to cost at minimum $95,805 per youth every year of incarceration, the bill read.

King County Superior Court Presiding Judge Susan Craighead has acknowledged that there are racial disparities in youth incarceration, calling racism “a fact of life in the juvenile justice system,” the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported in March. County Executive Dow Constantine said that while black people account for 10 percent of the county’s juveniles, they make up 50 percent of its detainees, the Seattle Times reported in March.

While he called those racial disparities “unacceptable,” Constantine wouldn’t commit to zero incarceration of youth because some do commit violent crimes, the Seattle Times reported.

"The law requires the county government to provide a detention center, yet we share the aspirational goal of a world in which no youth would need to be detained. The law also requires the purpose of any detention to be rehabilitation, not punishment," Constantine said in an emailed statement.

"King County has been successful in reducing the number of youth detained by more than two-thirds, and I've enlisted our community to work with police, courts and schools on real solutions to further support youth — so that fewer kids must be brought in for crimes against people, so that students in trouble are helped rather than being expelled or dropping out, and so that parents and foster parents have somewhere to turn when children act out violently," Constantine added.

The groups that will be enlisted to help develop policies to keep youth out of detention were the ones who brought the issue to the attention of the City Council in the first place, O'Brien said, beginning with protests over the planned $210 million investment in a new youth jail. Advocates noted that, at the same time, many struggling communities in Seattle face a lack of funding for public services.

The advocacy groups that have been campaigning for years against youth incarceration welcomed the resolution. Ending the Prison Industrial Complex, an anti-youth detention group, said in a statement, “EPIC’s position has been that King County should not be detaining children since the outset of the No New Youth Jail campaign.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed a statement by Judge Susan Craighead to County Executive Dow Constantine. The error has been corrected.

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