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King County Executive
Dow Constantine


King County takes action to root out racial disparity in juvenile justice system

Summary

While the number of youth in juvenile detention has dropped from a peak of 205 in 1999 to a low of 45 last year, racial disparity has grown. King County leaders announced new actions to end racial disproportionality, decriminalize homelessness and mental illness, and partner with schools and communities.

Story

King County Youth Justice
King County Executive Dow Constantine and Superior Court Presiding Judge Susan Craighead were joined by Metropolitan King County Councilmembers Larry Gossett, Joe McDermott and Dave Upthegrove to announce new measures to further reduce both the County’s youth detention population and the unacceptable racial disparities growing within it.

“Racial disparity has no place in our justice system here in King County, especially not in systems responsible for the well-being of our youth,” said Executive Constantine. “That’s why I am taking an aggressive approach to further limit the use of detention for young people. Confronting the causes of racial disparityin criminal justice and throughout societywill require the partnership of everyone in the community, and we are ready to work with anyone who is willing to work with us.”

"We share these goals, and recognize we need to think of how to create more alternatives to detention," said Presiding Judge Craighead. “Superior Court commits to make every effort to avoid detention for these young people except when absolutely necessary.”

The actions signal a paradigm shift in management of the County’s juvenile justice system toward restorative justice, a move initiated by the Superior Court bench. In a letter to the Seattle City Council, County leaders wrote, “We commit to ending disproportionality in the juvenile justice system. We commit to decriminalizing homelessness and mental illness. We commit to partnering with our schools and our communities to provide all youth with more options and opportunities.”

In the short term, Judge Craighead said the court has identified two goals for reducing the number of youth in detention: 1) judges and commissioners will avoid the use of detention for status offenders, such as truants or foster-care runaways, except when their lives or safety are in danger, and 2) with proposed new investments in County programs, the bench commits to reducing by half the use of detention for young probation violators, with a goal of reaching 50 percent reduction within one year.

Cutting the number of juvenile detention beds nearly in half

The County’s outmoded and dilapidated Youth Services Center was built to hold 212 beds. For the Children and Family Justice Center that voters approved to replace it, the current design was for 144 beds. With new judicial actions to divert more youth from detention, Executive Constantine announced the replacement Center can be built with 32 fewer detention beds, and capped the number of beds at 112thereby cutting the number of King County juvenile detention beds by nearly half.

Due to the need to keep boys and girls separated in detention, as well as the need to separate members of rival gangs, the maximum practical capacity of the replacement Center will become approximately 80.

The Executive said building 32 fewer beds will free up space in the replacement Center for use by non-profit agencies that can provide further alternatives to detention, for such programs as crisis intervention for homeless youth, or rescue of youth from gangs or sex trafficking.

Councilmembers Gossett, Upthegrove, and McDermott said they are committed to funding several programs advanced by the community to shift the paradigm and reduce disproportionality in the juvenile justice system, including investing in innovative public defense programs, community-based efforts to engage youth constructively, and more proactive work with schools. 

Councilmembers announce funding for specific programs

The Councilmembers outlined more than $4 million in proposed funding for specific programs that will focus on:

  • Support to keep kids enrolled in school.
  • Classes to provide basic financial skills as well as the knowledge needed to interview for employment.
  • A holistic approach for providing defense resources to youth and their families in the criminal justice system.
  • A targeted effort to expand alternatives to detention that are culturally responsive, geographically accessible and meaningful to youth.

“King County’s ‘paradigm shift’ will be guided by the premise that we will build a juvenile justice system that values all our children and decriminalizes the misbehaviors that some children experience,” said Councilmember Gossett. “Part of our system must require the decriminalizing of our youth—and that involves shifting towards a Restorative and Transformative Justice model. We must provide the needed services and care to help our young people become productive human beings if our county is to live up to our namesake of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. County.”

“Addressing today’s racial disproportionality in the juvenile justice system requires a significant change in the way that we support youth in King County,” said Councilmember McDermott. “Our commitment to fund efforts that span a spectrum of activities that will aid youth in avoiding or navigating the juvenile justice system demonstrates our resolve to achieving this fundamental shift.”

“For a lot of reasons, too many kids from communities of color in South King County are being locked up,” said Councilmember Upthegrove. “We need to take significant action now to keep all kids out of jail and to help all kids succeed.”

As Budget Chair, Councilmember McDermott will work with Councilmembers Gossett and Upthegrove to engage their colleagues and identify funding opportunities when the Council receives a supplemental budget.

Creating alternatives to secure detention for youth 

King County has been a leader over the last 20 years in creating alternatives to secure detention for youth. When the existing Youth Services Center was built in 1952 and the County held 850,000 people, the average daily population was 127. In 1999, with a county population of 1.75 million, the youth detention population peaked at 205. By 2014, with a population of more than 2 million, King County’s alternative programs brought youth in detention down to a low of 45.

With fewer in detention, however, the racial disparity has grown. While African American youth represent 10 percent of the general youth population in King County, they made up 35 percent of the Youth Center population in 1999, which was already disproportionate. Today, African American youth make up around 50 percent of those in detention, or five times their rate of representation in the general populationa situation called "unacceptable" by County leaders.

Executive Constantine said rooting out the causes of that racial disparity, and addressing them, will require the partnership of everyone in the community, including those involved with youth before they arrive at the door of the Youth Center. He said he would use his place as a convener to bring stakeholders together, including the many school districts and police agencies in King County. 

The County also submitted its Race and Equity Assessment and Action Plan to the Seattle City Council, under their Statement of Shared Commitment from October 2014.


Relevant links


Quotes

Racial disparity has no place in our justice system here in King County, especially not in systems responsible for the well-being of our youth. That’s why I am taking an aggressive approach to further limit the use of detention for young people. Confronting the causes of racial disparityin criminal justice and throughout societywill require the partnership of everyone in the community, and we are ready to work with anyone who is willing to work with us.

Dow Constantine, King County Executive

We share these goals, and recognize we need to think of how to create more alternatives to detention. Superior Court commits to make every effort to avoid detention for these young people except when absolutely necessary.

Susan Craighead, Presiding Judge, King County Superior Court

King County’s ‘paradigm shift’ will be guided by the premise that we will build a juvenile justice system that values all our children and decriminalizes the misbehaviors that some children experience. Part of our system must require the decriminalizing of our youth—and that involves shifting towards a Restorative and Transformative Justice model. We must provide the needed services and care to help our young people become productive human beings if our county is to live up to our namesake of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. County.

Larry Gossett, King County Councilmember

Addressing today’s racial disproportionality in the juvenile justice system requires a significant change in the way that we support youth in King County. Our commitment to fund efforts that span a spectrum of activities that will aid youth in avoiding or navigating the juvenile justice system demonstrates our resolve to achieving this fundamental shift.

Joe McDermott, King County Councilmember

For a lot of reasons, too many kids from communities of color in South King County are being locked up. We need to take significant action now to keep all kids out of jail and to help all kids succeed.

Dave Upthegrove, King County Councilmember

For more information, contact:

Alexa Vaughn, Children and Family Justice Center Project, 206-477-9463

Paul Sherfey, Superior Court, 206-477-2472

Al Sanders, County Council, 206-696-8132


King County Executive
Dow Constantine
Dow constantine portrait

Read the Executive's biography