Grassroots Community Groups Add Legal Firepower to Campaign to Stop New Youth Jail in King County

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Columbia Legal Services (CLS) is joining grassroots community groups fighting against King County's proposed new youth jail. CLS will represent Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC), alongside Smith & Lowney PLLC, in the pending appeal of the City of Seattle’s approval of permits for the proposed new youth jail slated to be built at 12th Avenue and Alder Street in Seattle’s Central District. CLS is following the lead of community based organizations, faith leaders, and concerned individuals and aims to halt construction of the new jail and keep King County from ignoring the voices of affected communities.

“We can do much better than this,” said Nick Straley, a staff attorney with the Institutions Project at CLS. “As anti-racist, grassroots leaders have recognized for years, the new youth jail is unnecessary, expensive, institutionally racist, ill-conceived, and should not be built. We’re committed to helping EPIC and other community leaders stop this misguided project.”

On January 5, 2017, EPIC—continuing a five-year battle against the jail alongside over 60 other social justice organizations and faith leaders—appealed the City of Seattle’s December 22, 2016, decision to grant King County a master use permit. The permit would allow the construction of three new buildings at the 12th and Alder site, including a new juvenile courthouse, a new parking garage, and a new youth jail with capacity for 156 children.  Currently, King County detains fewer than 30 young people every night.

In their appeal, EPIC and the other community members demonstrate that the City of Seattle did not properly consider many serious impacts that will occur if the new youth jail is built. These harms include psychological and physical injuries that will be suffered by youth who will be incarcerated there, particularly youth of color; harms to their families and harms to the adjoining neighborhood and larger community because of the presence of a prison for children that will last for decades.

“The time is right to fundamentally reevaluate how youth are treated in the criminal justice system,” said Senait Brown, an organizer with EPIC. “Unfortunately, building this jail will force King County to continue locking up Black and Brown children long into the future. This jail is the wrong answer and the wrong approach,” added Brown.

King County has now asked the Hearing Examiner to dismiss the over 60 social justice organizations—primarily representing communities of color—and faith leaders from the appeal and to bar them from presenting crucial evidence regarding the terrible impacts the new jail will create.

Yesterday, EPIC and other community members filed their response in which they ask the Hearing Examiner to allow the groups to present new information and data that King County and the City ignored or did not consider while making their decisions. This information is necessary to ensure that King County cannot continue to ignore the voices of affected communities or avoid the serious and damaging consequences of building an unnecessary, expensive, and ill-conceived new jail for children.

EPIC, CLS, and their partners believe that children should not be locked away in jails or prisons. The City of Seattle has officially recognized its goal of ending the detention of youth and King County Executive Dow Constantine has expressed a similar desire to end youth incarceration. King County’s decision to build a new jail with the capacity to house over 156 children a night runs counter to this goal and locks King County into a particular and discredited, detention-based model of juvenile justice for the next 50 years.

Over the past few years, due to the organizing and efforts of EPIC and other partners, new programs and initiatives have been created resulting in a significant reduction in the number of youth in detention. As a result, on most nights, King County now incarcerates fewer than 30 young people at the current youth detention center, a number far below what it was only a few years ago and much farther below the 156 child capacity of the new youth jail. These and other innovative strategies will continue to reduce the number of children in detention even further.

Unfortunately, the children that King County continues to incarcerate are largely children of color. In fact, 77% of the youth held in secure detention in 2016 were Black, Latino, or Native American. During one count, three quarters of the girls held by King County were Black. A new youth jail will commit King County to this pattern of incarcerating low-income, youth of color for at least the next 50 years.

The youth jail project is already $15 million over budget before even breaking ground and now has a total projected cost of $225 million—and it continues to climb. The social and budget impacts of the project have in the past weeks led to a change of heart among primary supporters of the project, including Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, King County Councilmember Rob Dembowski, and Seattle Councilmember Bruce Harrell.   

“Community voices have led the politicians to reevaluate how we treat children within the system,” said Brown. “We now have the opportunity to create effective community owned solutions to juvenile justice, but the youth jail must be stopped first.”