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King County vows major changes to locking troubled kids up in juvenile detention

King County's juvenile detention and youth services center. (King County)

While African American youth make up just 10 percent of the young people in King County, they represent 50 percent of the juvenile detainees. County leaders say they are taking significant steps to change what Executive Dow Constantine calls “unacceptable” racial disparity, starting with a sharp cutback in locking kids up.

“We will embark on a major shift in our philosophy of juvenile justice. We are going to get to the root causes of these numbers,” Constantine said at a briefing Tuesday, where he announced plans to significantly cut the number of beds at a planned new detention center set to open in 2019.

“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 more opportunities,” Constantine said.

Related: Family says system to blame for teen spiraling out of control

County voters approved a $210 million levy in 2012 to build a new juvenile justice center in Seattle’s Central Area. Along with detention, it will include courtrooms and offices to replace the crumbling, outdated complex built in 1952 and renovated several times since then.

Constantine is directing project staff overseeing the new complex to cap the number of beds at 112, half the number in the existing center.

Space originally designated for additional beds will be used for other arrangements such as public defense programs, community-based social services and other resources.

“Disproportionately is not just a justice system issue, it is a societal issue,” Constantine said.

The county’s judges are playing a key part in the effort to seek alternatives to juvenile detention.

“Juvenile court and juvenile detention, especially, has become a dumping ground for all of the young people other systems lack the resources to take proper care of,” said Superior Court Presiding Judge Susan Craighead. “We are committed to make every effort to avoid detention for these young people except when absolutely necessary.”

A big area of focus is seeking alternatives for young people considered status offenders, such as those who run away from home or foster care and are subsequently arrested and jailed.

“Sadly, every day judges and commissioners place youth in detention because we do not have another safe place to put them,” Craighead said.

The judges will seek to reduce the number of young people sentenced to juvenile detention by 50 percent in the next year, according to Craighead.

The policy change follows a number of protests about discrimination in the justice system and the building of the new juvenile detention and youth services facility, with critics arguing it should be shut down altogether and the money used for other programs and services.

Several county councilmembers announced Tuesday a handful of new measures including programs to support and keep kids in school, employment and life skills training, broadened justice services to help youth and families navigate the juvenile justice system, and more early intervention programs that reach at-risk youth before they become involved in the system.

“Youth need to be held accountable but we need to have strategies that get them the services and support they need and incentives to be successful,” said Councilmember Dave Upthegrove. “We know that the earlier we can get kids assistance, the more likely they are to avoid going to jail. And we don’t do enough in King County.”

Upthegrove and fellow councilmembers Larry Gossett and Joe McDermott vowed to offer upwards of $4 million for the new programs. But they said it is just the start.

Mental health and substance abuse services are a critical component to reforming the system, according to Craighead. Studies have found two-thirds of youth in the nation’s juvenile detention centers meet the criteria for a mental disorder and one-third need ongoing care. Yet Washington ranks 48th nationwide for access to mental health care, she said.

“We are not willing to continue forcing our children, King County’s children, to be prosecuted in order to get the help they need,” Craighead said.

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