The exiting King County youth jail is a little dated but apparently quite functional. (King County).

As predicted, the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) approved the land use permit Thursday for the King County Children and Family Justice Center, also known as the youth jail, with the hefty price tag of $210 million and an arguably sordid history.

Mayor Ed Murray issued a statement contending his hands were tied: “The Office of the Mayor cannot intervene in any permitting decision, including this one, as it is a technical decision based on the County’s application. As the City Hearing Examiner’s decision on Terminal 5 at the Port of Seattle clarified, the City must base any permit decision on the technical design facts in a permit application, and not on any policy considerations.”

The organization leading the charge against the new youth jail, Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) Seattle, disagreed with that assessment. In their own statement, EPIC quoted Seattle University law professor Dean Spade who questioned the idea that precedent had been set or that the Mayor’s hand had been tied:

This is a totally different case than the Shell decision he cites. Unlike in that case, there is no existing permit and the code does not support the master use permit. The mayor could have chosen to be on the right side or the wrong side, and he chose the wrong side. While the city cannot ignore the code, the code here supported denial.

Huy, a Seattle-based non-profit that “provides economic, educational, rehabilitative and religious support for Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian prisoners, chiefly those Natives imprisoned in the Washington Department of Corrections and local jails” also came out against the new youth jail citing the disparate impact against American Indian youth:

Unsurprisingly, Native youth endure a disproportionately high rate of juvenile incarceration. There is evidence of persistent disparate treatment of Native youth at each stage of Washington’s juvenile system. American Indian youth are less likely to receive a diversion, an approach that keeps youth from formal processing and further contact with the juvenile system, and are more than twice as likely to be referred to court. Most distressing, American Indians have the highest juvenile suicide rate, at more than double the white youth and triple that of the rates for other racial groups.

Councilmember O’Brien joined in the dissent Thursday:

Mounting evidence reinforces what communities of color have been telling us for years: jailing youth perpetuates a vicious cycle of violence, makes detainees more likely to re-offend, and disproportionately impacts people of color, particularly black youth. It is unfortunate that the permit application submitted by the County, with plans for 112 detention beds, seems to be inconsistent with the City Council’s vision for a city with zero use of youth detention, and the County’s stated intention to ‘fight for a world where detention for young people is no longer needed.’ While SDCI has given their technical approval of the plans from a land use perspective, I urge the County to go back to the drawing board to reflect community voices and the commitments we share towards ending youth incarceration.

Meanwhile Dan Savage encapsulated the moderate consensus in his Wednesday column titled “What Do We Do With Youth Who Attempt To Kill?” in anticipation of the ruling, throwing in a few cuss swears to avoid feeling like too much of a square.

Address the root causes, invest in families and communities, end systemic racism in our justice system (and every other system), prioritize the living shit out of “restorative, individualized, and developmentally appropriate strategies to respond to youth behavior and eliminate the need for the continued detention of youth.”

But I’m not sure exactly what is being posited here. Will addressing root causes, battling systemic racism, investing in families, etc., create a future where kids don’t commit violent crimes? Or are they suggesting we can, through innovation, find some alternative to incarcerating kids who do commit violent crimes? Are we aiming for “a system in which kids are not locked up for committing crimes”? Or hoping to create a society in which kids are simply incapable of committing crimes?

While doing less violence to kids—economic violence, racial violence, domestic violence—would certainly lead to less violence from kids, either outcome (no violent kids who might require incarceration, a non-custodial alternative to incarcerating violent kids) seems naively/ridiculously utopian.

…But holding the kids we’re going to have to incarcerate for the foreseeable future in the facility we have now—the toxic, cramped, and unsafe facility we have now—is its own kind of violence.

Ah yes, here I am the starry-eyed, näive progressive to push back. First of all, let’s dispel with the notion we are vastly improving the lives of kids who are in jail  by giving them a newer jail cell. Dan Savage laments the existing jail cells are cramped; how are jail cells not cramped? Here’s the thing about incarceration: it feels cramped. The shiny new youth jail and courthouse will make life more pleasant for the employees–the judges, bailiffs, attorneys, guards, etc.–who work there. And one could argue more satisfied courtroom employees will be less likely to lash out at kids with stiffer sentences out of subconscious frustration with working in a facility they consider a toxic rathole.

But let’s not pretend it’s for the kids. If we want to imagine a facility that would truly be for the kids, why stop at a newer, slightly bigger cell. Let’s make it 1,000 square feet located in their home neighborhood with a kitchen and multiple bedrooms so their family or guardians can live there too. Oh wait, I’m describing equitable affordable housing. Let’s build that. Where’s the $210 million in County dollars for that? And if the current youth jail and courthouse is truly toxic and poses a real public health risk, why not condemn it now to force the issue? This smacks of propaganda rather than a legitimate public health concern, especially in light of the County’s own 2011 analysis that a million dollars in repairs would solve the issues that do exist at the facility.

If we grant that the goal of zero youth incarceration is aspirational rather than realistic, we can still ask if building 112 detention beds is still too many to deal with the handful of kids who are theoretically too violent or hopeless for diversionary programs. King County boasts of greatly reducing the number of youth detained, and an alliance of legal organizations opposed to the new youth jail pointed out only a small faction of those were for violent offenses:

On most days this past year, we had no more than 60 children in our county juvenile detention center. On some days we had as few as 45 children. This number represents a great reduction from the hundreds of children held in detention each day during the 1990s. This reduced population in detention is made up of youth held for a variety of reasons and at different stages of the juvenile court process. In 2014, only 17 percent of the total number of detention admissions were for violent offenses.

Even if we accept Savage’s premise that we only detain kids convicted of a violent crime in the county jail, we’d still only need about a dozen beds and we’d be building a hundred surplus beds apparently for youth with non-violent crimes or anticipating a few spikes in violent juvenile crimes. King County typically detained fewer than 60 minors yet they are building beds for more than 112. Seattle appears to think they are going away from their goal of zero rather than towards it. That is concerning. This is why EPIC and others are red flagging this. And it should also be noted there are alternatives. Incarceration opponents sometimes cite in-home detention as a remedy for violent juveniles who constitute a serious threat. This is another route to answer the question Savage posed.

A compromise short of declaring the end of youth incarceration that may have been welcomed by all sides is further cutting the number of detention beds and putting the money saved to loftier purposes, i.e. “prioritizing the living shit” of restorative justice Savage referenced. A gesture like that would have at least shown King County was hearing the concerns opponents have raised. And it would reduce the investment in a practice we are aiming by Council decree to make obsolete.

It may be too late to deny the master use permit. If EPIC does appeal they may fail. What we should do regardless is try to use what leverage we have to get King County to further cut the number of detention beds at the facility. We can spend the money better. We can send a better message.

The contact information of the King County Council is here while you can reach the Office of King County Executive Dow Constantine at or 206-263-9600.

Merry Xmas Seattle, King County Got You A New Youth Jail

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.