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King County judges aim to set record straight on youth detention center

Seattle's new Children and Family Justice Center under construction. (Hanna Scott, KIRO Radio)

The years-long controversy over King County’s new juvenile justice center has led to controversy, lawsuits, protests blocking traffic, heated council meetings, and more.

It’s been frustrating for Judge Judy Ramseyer. She’s the chief judge at King County Juvenile Court.

“I’ve been frustrated because the headline you always see is ‘No Youth Jail’ but it’s based on a misconception,” Ramseyer said.

“The misconception is that this huge building that’s going up about 50 feet away from us is a youth jail and it’s not a youth jail,” she said. “…it’s title is the Children and Family Justice Center. It houses so many things.”

While one of those things is absolutely a youth detention center, she says it’s a smaller operation than the current youth jail. It’s a very different setup than the one used now in an old, run down, dark facility in the Central District.

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“The new detention center just has natural life,” Ramseyer said. “It has light in all of its quadrants. It’s divided up into 16 bed pods. Detention needs separate pods because you want to separate out boys and girls; you separate out gang affiliations. So if you have young people from warring gangs you can’t put them in the same pod. They separate older youth from younger youth so that they’re not cross fertilizing. So you need more pods than you fill up.”

“Each pod has natural light, it has common areas, it has classrooms attached to it,” she said. “In the detention center there’s a new medical center with dental and medical services. There’s a school, there’s a gym, there’s a library, there’s garden space. It makes possible to provide all of these additional services within that setting.”

During the years-long battle between the county and “no youth jail” activists, one of the big questions has been: how can a county committed to zero youth detention be building a new facility? The answer: we’re simply not at a place yet where every kid can be diverted away from lock up. But that goal of zero youth detention is still a very active part of this new facility.

Two of those pods are what is known as transitional — meaning they’re unsecured. While Judge Ramseyer says the rest are for lock up, she says everyone — especially the critics — need to understand they don’t have to stay that way.

“The constriction is such that if our numbers continue to decline we can make two more [pods] non-secure, or make two more non-secure,” Ramseyer said. “So over time if the aspirational goal, zero youth detention, were in fact reached then all of the beds that are constructed now in that detention center could conceivably be transformed into transitional, residential units for emergency housing, or for substance abuse, or for mental health treatment, or whatever those services are that would be needed. So that’s incredible.”

The youth detention center is less than 20 percent of the cost and space in the new building.

The rest includes 10 courtrooms that don’t just deal with kids arrested for crime. There is also the civil side of cases, such as at-risk youth and truancy issues. There is a long term goal of taking that side even further, to include all family court business.

A huge part of this new facility is dedicated to having resources for these kids and their families all in one place — from groups that work with kids in gangs, to kids with drug issues or human trafficking victims and much more. All of these resources will be in this single building, and Judge Ramseyer says that is going to be huge.

“With the hope that we are actually both more efficient and effective at connecting these families with the service providers they need,” she said.

King County Superior Court Judge Mike Diaz handles the criminal offender side of juvenile court. He says every effort is made to divert youth to programs and keep them out of lock up, but the reality at this point is that can’t happen in every case.

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“These are a lot of kids whose families don’t want them, or don’t know what to do with them, or they are a danger to themselves out there, because they are being trafficked or are a danger to others, because of all sorts of reasons — mental health, substance abuse,” Diaz said. “Until we have some credible alternative to that, being in this building is not productive for these kids to engage with the system.”

Judge Ramseyer hopes sharing these details will help end the misconception about the new facility.

“I get the impression sometimes that people think we are running around in the community and picking up kids and throwing them in dingy cells somewhere,” she said. “And it’s not like that at all. There are so many programs designed to keep kids out of there. The vast majority of young people that have their first contact are kept out of the system. It’s not until it reaches a certain level of seriousness, or repetitiveness, that it comes to us. Then we try to double down. ”

“Double down” means connecting kids with services to keep them out of lock up and hopefully get the county to zero youth detention in the future.

Construction on the youth detention center started in 2017 and will open in stages, starting with the jail portion in October. It will be fully operational by 2021.

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