King County Executive Dow Constantine announced his intent to close the county’s adult and youth detention facilities, a win for community advocates who have been fighting the carceral system and pushing for alternatives to incarceration.
The county reduced its adult jail population from 1,900 to roughly 1,300 when the coronavirus struck, making it unsafe for people to be crowded together. King County intends to maintain those gains while further drawing down the adult population when the pandemic ends, Constantine said in his “State of the County” address.
“We did that, and now we are determined to make permanent this reduction in the jail population, and to create alternatives to incarceration that are less traumatic and more restorative, and a better use of public money.”
There are currently fewer than 25 youth in detention at the Children and Family Justice Center, a brand new, $242 million facility that also includes courts and other resources for families in the system. That’s down from a daily average of 84 when Constantine took office in 2009.
Constantine committed to “zero youth detention” and provided a road map to that goal in the 2019-2020 proposed budget. However, the county was in the process of opening the new youth detention facility and fighting lawsuits that aimed to defund it at the time the promise was made, causing people to express suspicion about his dedication to that cause.
“People doubted our commitment. My commitment,” Constantine said in a press conference. “But those people were, and are, wrong.”
Advocates from the No New Youth Jail coalition declared victory after the address, noting that the announcement that the facility would be closed came only nine months after the youth jail formally opened.
“The real drivers of this change are community members who resisted this racist project since day one,” they wrote in a statement. “We’ve known from the beginning that our communities have the answers for building safety without relying on cops, courts and cages. We pushed for community-led solutions and an entirely different system which divests from the juvenile punishment system before it was popular or politically advantageous to do so.”
When asked why he chose to make the announcement now amid a fight to defund law enforcement and rethink the racist roots and results of the criminal justice system, Constantine said that it was a factor of three ongoing circumstances: the social justice movement against police brutality and racism, the coronavirus and the cratering of the economy, which means massive deficits for local government.
Roughly three-quarters of the county’s budget is spent on the criminal justice system and law enforcement, far eclipsing spending on social services that can prevent crime in the first place. The adult detention facility is almost 35 years old, is expensive to maintain and wasn’t built to convert to other uses, Constantine said, making it difficult to repurpose. The new youth detention facility was built at half the capacity of the previous facility and with the capacity to reduce the number of detention beds further, if needed.
The timeline for the closures is not fully clear. Constantine said that the adult faciity would close in phases after the pandemic ends, while the youth jail will close by 2025.
“We must reimagine Seattle and King County’s downtown campus — the entire campus — in light of realities today,” Constantine said. “The old jail, at some point, must come down.”
What the county won’t do, Constantine said, is close the jail and then shift people to the adult facility in Kent.
The road to reducing the youth and adult jail populations has been a long one. Voters approved a ballot measure in 2012 to fund the construction of the Children and Family Justice Center, but a group sued, saying, in part, that the ballot language led them to believe they were voting for something other than a jail.
That fight continued in one form or another until January 2019, when the state Supreme Court ruled against advocates.
Efforts to decriminalize certain activities and keep low-level offenders out of expensive incarceration led to the development and implementation of LEAD, the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program that began in Belltown and has expanded to much of Seattle and Burien.
Program LEADers argue that many crimes, such as prostitution, drug possession and activities related to homelessness, are not solved by a jail sentence and can create a revolving door of crime, warrants and incarceration. A series of community courts in the county also aims to resolve certain crimes outside of the traditional system.
How violent crimes will be dealt with under the new system has not been completely revealed, but Constantine did not shut the door on detention fully.
“When someone is committing violence against another human being, a judge is absolutely right to ensure that person is detained somewhere safe until they are no longer a threat to the community,” he said. “That is what detention should be for. It should not be a be all end all for every societal problem.”
More steps to closure will be announced with the presentation of the 2022 budget.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the July 29 - Aug. 4, 2020 issue.