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Seattle is on a road map to zero youth detention – so why is it opening a huge new prison? | US news

When Armand Karim, 16, was arrested in connection with a robbery and transported to the Youth Services Center’s detention facility in Seattle, he was put in a holding cell for about two hours, given a cold lunch and then taken into a separate room to strip, so law enforcement could search him.

For the next week and a half, Karim lived at the facility in his own small room that included a sink, toilet and a bed. He says he remembers the spiders and webs in the shower and the feeling of consistently being cold, but it was the sitting around all day that really stuck with him.

“It was mentally exhausting,” he said of the experience last year. “There’s nothing in there for me to use to better myself or skills to practice. You just sit there and kind of feel depressed.”

Seattle is gearing up to open a new $242m Children and Family Justice Center, which will replace this decades-old Youth Services Center, located mere yards away. It will include a 92,000 sq ft juvenile detention center, with 112 secure beds, and a 137,000 sq ft courthouse, equipped with 10 courtrooms.

Between its extensive natural light, outdoor space and medical services, it’s clear the new space will be a major upgrade to the current complex, which has become known for its unreliable heating and cooling systems, mold and brown water.

But in the seven years since residents voted in favor of a property tax to fund the new complex, the trend in the US has largely been to move away from youth detention. With extensive research showing not only that long-term youth incarceration can increase rates of re-offending, but also young people’s innate ability to reform if given the chance, states have begun to hone in on rehabilitation and restorative practices when it comes to juvenile justice.

Last year, King county, which includes Seattle, took a big step in that direction as well. Officials released “The Road Map to Zero Youth Detention,” a strategic plan detailing the need to transition away from detaining children. It references the disproportionate representation of young people of color in the county’s juvenile justice system and the fact that there is little connection between youth incarceration and the amount of crime in the area. Officials also proposed a $4m investment to implement the plan.

The county is now left with the difficult task of attempting to reconcile two seemingly competing visions for the area’s juvenile justice future: a new multimillion dollar detention facility in a county that has committed both ideologically and financially to eliminating youth incarceration.

King county Council Chair Rod Dembowski described it as putting a square peg in a round hole.

“We’re on the path [toward zero youth detention], but we’re still dragged down in a way by the vestiges of a 500-year-old philosophy and technology represented by cinderblocks and steel doors,” he said. “And when those are built, they’re used.”

Over the past decade, King county has dramatically reduced the number of young people held in the Youth Services Center’s detention facility. In 2006, the average daily population was 105 people, and by the first half of 2019 that number had dipped to 41.

The new complex is set to open later this month, but for years it has faced a wide array of pushback from the community. There have been protests on city streets, in council meetings and even outside the home of King county executive Dow Constantine.

Last year, The No New Youth Jail Coalition, which has helped to lead this pushback, sent a letter to Constantine demanding a moratorium on the construction of the facility. It described King County’s policing and imprisonment systems as being “racially targeted” and used to “criminalize poverty”.

A group called End the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) filed several lawsuits over the center. In December 2018, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled against one key lawsuit.

Judge Judy Ramseyer, chief judge at King County Juvenile Court, said it’s important to remember that this is not an either/or situation. The county needs the whole continuum of services – a detention facility, rehabilitation and restorative practices and everything in between – so each young person is treated appropriately based on their individual circumstances.

She explained that the new detention facility is only for young people who have been arrested and are waiting on the adjudication of their crime (If they’re sentenced to confinement, they’re sent to a state institution). And of those young people eligible for the facility, only a small minority are actually placed there, citing the fact that in the first eight months of 2019, about 500 children had charges pending against them in King county, but there were only a few dozen people in the facility on a daily basis. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t needed, she said.

“If there’s a 14-year-old that’s shooting at people, the reality is that if that kid’s back on the street right after that, that 14-year-old is at risk,” said Ramseyer. “So for the time being we need to figure out what’s going on and sometimes detention is used to kind of stop whatever the activity is and give us a few days or a week or two weeks, whatever the amount of time is, to figure out, ‘OK how can the community safely deal with this young person.’”

Eric Trupin, a psychologist who runs the mental health program in the detention center, agreed that there are situations where children do need to be detained, but said the new facility could have reduced its number of detention beds much more than it did (It will have 100 fewer detention beds than the previous complex). It then could have used that space for other much needed programs, including as a shelter for homeless youth.

The facility will include a gym, a library, classrooms and medical and dental services. It will also have 32 non-secure beds, which will be used for alternative youth programs, explained Ramseyer. She said one program that will make use of this space will be the Family Intervention and Restorative Services (FIRS), which gives young people arrested for family violence incidents time away from the home and counseling before being reunited.

It looks like Karim, now 17, won’t be returning to this or any other youth detention center. Recently, a judge opted to give him one-year probation in lieu of confinement.

He’s already made some key progress on his life outside the juvenile justice system since being transferred out of the detention facility and into house arrest about a year ago. He was able to take advantage of a number of local programs for young people with similar pasts and start getting his associate degree and receive help with employment.

But when asked whether he wished he could have avoided the detention facility altogether, he paused for a long time and said he wasn’t sure, since the experience felt like a “wakeup call”.

“Had I not met all those people in there and heard their stories, I don’t know,” he said.