Opponents of the county’s proposed juvenile detention center appealed a decision by the City of Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections (SDIC) that would move the project forward just minutes before the appeals window closed.
Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) and other groups trying to end youth detention and stop the construction of the Children and Family Justice Center submitted their appeal at 4:41 p.m. on Jan. 4. In it, they allege that the Office of the Hearing Examiner should overturn the decision by the head of SDIC, Nathan Torgelson, because it relied on an environmental analysis that is out of date.
A new analysis should have been conducted to reflect changed public policy and information about the impacts of jailing youth, the need for the new building, toxins and hazardous materials at the site, traffic and parking impacts, changes to the scope of the project and its failure to comply with land use code, according to the appeal.
Opponents also allege that King County submitted inaccurate plans to SDIC and that the office didn’t have sufficient information to allow approval of the master use permit, which is at the heart of the appeal, thereby waiving certain development standards that the planned facility violates.
The environmental review can and should take into account research on the impact of detaining youth and policies, such as Seattle’s stated commitment to zero youth detention, said Knoll Lowney, an attorney with Smith & Lowney PLLC, who is representing EPIC.
“I think that is going to be a big legal fight,” Lowney said.
The appeal is the latest move in a four-year battle to stop the construction of the new complex, which would replace the existing detention center along with courtrooms and office facilities. The team had to scramble to get the appeal filed under the wire.
The decision to allow approval of the master use permit came on Dec. 22, just three days before Christmas, meaning that the two-week appeal period spanned both Christmas and New Year holidays.
King County voters approved a property tax increase in 2012 to build the campus, but voter turnout was very low and the ballot language didn’t mention a detention facility.
Opponents claim that the ballot language was misleading at best and that voters would not have approved the tax had they known what it would be used for.
They also point out that the facility disproportionately impacts children of color, who are detained at far higher rates than their White counterparts.
According to King County’s statistics, almost half of the children admitted to the facility in 2014 were Black, despite the fact that Black people make up only 6.2 percent of the population of King County. Only 26.9 percent of children detained were White.
These racial disparities appear to be endemic in the juvenile justice system. According to a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, rates of confinement were 2.7 times higher for youth of color than for White kids. That rate was considerably worse for Black and Native American children, who were incarcerated at 4.7 and 3.3 times the rate of White children in 2013.
Given the negative impacts of detention on children and the racial bias in the system, opponents of the detention center want to see alternatives to detention that keep kids out of lockdown. Seattle and King County have had a great deal of success with such community-driven programs.
The average number of kids in the existing facility dropped from 119 in 2003 to 57 in 2016, according to King County’s Detention and Alternatives report.
The rapid fall in the number of children behind bars makes it even harder to justify spending $210 million on the new facility, opponents say.