A group of local law students is upset with the King County Bar Association (KCBA) for supporting the construction of a new King County juvenile jail, and one of those students recently resigned in protest from his student liaison position with the KCBA over the issue.
"In response to KCBA’s call to action to support the new $210 million youth jail," writes 26-year-old Miguel Willis, a second-year law student at Seattle University, "I can no longer reconcile my identity as an African American and a future lawyer with the work put forth by KCBA... I am bound by my core set of beliefs to promote a justice system that endorses equitable outcomes for people of color."
Only 10 percent of King County's juvenile population is black, but in 2013, black youth made up about 43 percent of those incarcerated in the detention center. In 2014, that proportion shot up to 51 percent, even as the overall number of detained youth has been on the decline.
King County voters approved the construction of a new juvenile detention center in 2012, and backers say a new juvie is necessary because the county is required by state law to have a juvie and because the current juvie is so decrepit it's unsafe (not to mention poorly equipped to serve struggling young people). Opponents want zero detention of youth, period, because they say juvenile detention is traumatizing and doesn't help young people escape the conditions that led them to commit crimes. (The Seattle City Council recently endorsed the goal of zero youth detention in a non-binding resolution and on Monday allocated $600,000 to develop alternatives to youth incarceration.)
In an interview by phone with The Stranger after a long day of class, Willis, who recently organized a Social Justice Hackathon at his campus, talked about the disproportionate jailing of black youth and said, "If this was happening at a restaurant, the restaurant would be shut down."
Willis was appointed as the KCBA's student liaison at Seattle University law school last July. His counterpart at the UW law school, Alexandra Pollack, didn't resign from her KCBA position, but she co-signed a letter with Willis and over two dozen other law students urging the City of Seattle to deny a master use permit to the county for the new juvenile detention center project.
Andy Prazuch, the executive director of the KCBA, said he was sorry to see Willis go and thanked him for his service to the bar association. He said the group supports the construction of the new jail because the current facility is aging and unsafe, and he wants the city to approve the master user permit so the county can proceed with construction.
"We've monitored the county's efforts to complete the project," Prazuch said, "and when we learned that in recent weeks the city was hearing only from opponents, I updated the KCBA membership and asked them to remind the city that support remained for the new building."
He continued: "That said, it's also important to KCBA members that systemic problems in the criminal justice system, in particular the juvenile system, be addressed, and KCBA has worked to be a part of raising these issues. For example, we welcomed Michelle Alexander [author of The New Jim Crow] as the keynote speaker at our annual MLK luncheon two years ago to focus the legal community's attention on the issue of mass incarceration."
This was an ironic thing for Prazuch to say, because Michelle Alexander opposes jailing children. He said he could not identify any specific actions the KCBA took regarding racial inequities in the criminal justice system after her speech to the association.
Ending the Prison Industrial Complex, the group that has been organizing opposition to the jail, weighed in this week with a 12-page, heavily-footnoted letter to the City of Seattle's Department of Planning and Development, King County, and the Seattle City Council opposing the granting of the master use permit. The letter was written by the law office of Knoll Lowney, the attorney who recently won a $5.7 million dollar settlement from Triad Development for a group of displaced tenants.
I asked Lowney whether the letter is a precursor to a lawsuit. "We would hope that the city would say no to the permit," he said, "and then we wouldn't need a lawsuit."