King County opens doors to controversial new youth detention center
Over the next two weeks, King County will transfer about forty youth in its custody from the old Youth Services Center to the new Children and Family Justice Center.
The new facility in the Central District contains courtrooms, a resource center for families, and 112 new juvenile detention beds, despite ongoing community protests against youth detention.
County officials say the new $232 million facility will offer better conditions for court visitors as well as incarcerated youth and their families than the cramped building it replaces.
On Wednesday, county officials showed off the features of the new building, which is located next door to its predecessor.
The new facility includes a spiritual center, classroom, library, and gym with yoga mats. There are also more rooms for private conversations with lawyers and family members, and dazzling new art created in part by formerly incarcerated young people.
King County Superior Court Judge Mike Diaz said the courtrooms also contain important changes: the bench for judges is lower, so they don’t tower over people. And parties in court sit at one rounded table rather than on opposite sides of the room.
“There’s just a certain amount of respect that we’re showing to the people who are coming into this courtroom when the county shows them they care enough about this system to build a place like this,” Diaz said.
But for years, the No New Youth Jail Coalition and community-based groups have pressed for an end to youth detention. King County also launched its own Zero Youth Detention effort, which included downsizing the detention center's capacity; the new building contains 100 fewer beds than the old one.
“I want to start by acknowledging the vocal opposition that was in the community to the construction of this building,” said Chief Juvenile Judge Judith Ramseyer on Wednesday. “Whatever a person’s view about juvenile justice policy, it’s my hope that by the end of this tour, you will have learned a lot about the work we do here in juvenile court and you’ll come to believe as I do that this building is a valuable community asset.”
But Sean Goode with the diversion group Choose 180, which works to keep young people out of the criminal justice system, said he would describe the recent tour as a “visitation,” an occasion tinged with grief rather than celebration.
Goode said the youth detention cells and security apparatus, which include an airport-style body scanner to check for contraband, are just as disturbing as the cell where he visited his older brother, who was accused of a crime when Goode was six years old.
“No matter how much art you add to a space, the sound of that door closing behind you incites an emotion that you will just never forget,” he said. “These spaces are no different. They’re shinier, they’re newer, but they’re still absent of hope, absent of possibility, and a horrible place for a young person to be.”
Goode added that sometimes youth do need to be in “quarantine” to keep from harming themselves or others. But he said receiving help should be immediate.
Juvenile court services manager Aaron Parker said that’s the county's intention: to focus immediately on “a therapeutic model.” In the past, Parker said, the court system only examined the defendant’s needs after their case was resolved and they were on probation. Now, he said, they look at the young person’s needs upfront.
“You get this charge, we address your needs, do assessments and screenings, figure out what they are,” Parker said. Then, “develop milestones with you and the family and incentivize those milestones in hopes that we will shorten your time in connection to the court system.”
Court hearings will be scheduled for the new Children and Family Justice Center starting February 18.