Anti-juvenile jail activists gathered in March at Seattle University to develop a peoples plan alternative to King Countys plan to build a new detention center.
Anti-juvenile jail activists gathered in March at Seattle University to develop a "people's plan" alternative to King County's plan to build a new detention center. That plan is finding its way into the city budget. Alex Garland

The Seattle City Council will vote this month on a measure to spend more than half a million dollars on the development of alternatives to jailing children, following through on the September passage of a resolution that established a goal of moving toward zero youth detention in the city.

The measure is likely to pass, not just because it already has five co-sponsors—a majority of the city council—but because a powerful movement against racially disproportionate youth detention is pressuring the city's lawmakers to make good on their words.

About 10 percent of King County's juvenile population is black, but in 2013, black youth made up about 43 percent of those incarcerated. In 2014, that proportion shot up to 51 percent, even as the overall number of detained youth has declined.

Activists were "laughed at and ridiculed," said James Williams, a member of Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC), when they first began telling officials that no young person should be jailed. "It's the community that made this happen," he said. "People are listening to us now, when they wouldn't before."

The amendment to the city's budget would allocate $600,000 to the Social Justice Fund (SJF) through the Office of Civil Rights. SJF, in turn, would use its unique philanthropic approach—grant-making through a collective decision-making process by community members who form a "giving project"—to dole out funds to social justice groups to work on alternatives to jailing youth, including restorative justice. Of the $600,000, $100,000 would go to administrative costs, $250,000 would go toward creating new programs, and the remaining $250,000 would go toward expanding or strengthening existing programs, according to Williams.

"I think it's transformational for the community to be coming forward with anti-racist solutions, ideas, and processes that can really disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline," Williams said.

SJF's giving project will be made up of members of anti-racist community-based agencies and African-American youth. Formerly incarcerated individuals will participate, too, Williams said, in order for those who have been most impacted by the justice system to have a say in where the money goes and what it's used for.

Opposition to the county's $210 million "Children and Family Justice Center," which will replace the King County Juvenile Detention Center and is planned to begin construction next year, began in 2012, just before the voters passed a funding levy, and has ramped up since then. In a recent interview, King County Executive Dow Constantine said zero youth detention, while an admirable goal, won't come to fruition in the "foreseeable future." He questioned how opponents of youth detention would deal with children who commit heinous violent crimes and pose an immediate risk to others' safety.

"There's no kid who needs to be detained? That is objectively false," Constantine said.

Williams said the $600,000 in funding for community groups from the City of Seattle represents "how we find the answer to that question that everyone is asking. Let's create spaces for people who believe there's another way so we can find that way."

Opponents of the new juvenile detention center are also flooding Seattle's Department of Planning and Development with letters arguing against granting construction permits to the county. For example, here's attorney Sarah Lippek, who also co-chairs the Seattle Human Rights Commission:

The entire purpose of the facility is barbaric and unethical. You will find yourself standing on the wrong side of history if you abet the construction of the so-called 'Children and Family Justice Center.'

The era of mass incarceration in the United States is coming to an end—and it cannot happen soon enough. There are many seemingly well-intentioned policies that allow us to imprison our children; our people of color; our homeless people; our neighbors with mental health issues. These policies, and the bodies that promulgated them, are being internationally recognized as unethical and immoral.

Travis Mann, a University of Washington law student, weighed in with another letter: "The City of Seattle cannot have a goal or vision of zero-use of juvenile detention while giving the County authorization or permission to build a new juvenile detention center."

The King County Bar Association, meanwhile, called on its members last week to voice their support for the construction of the jail and court center. "We need to counter a write-in campaign organized by a small group of opponents of incarceration," said KCBA Executive Director Andrew Prazuch in an e-mail blast. He couldn't be reached for comment before publication.

Mann, the UW law student, criticized the association for not representing a diversity of views within the legal community.

In February, King County Superior Court Judge Susan Craighead went from calling the movement against the facility a "cancer on the body politic," to apologizing and acknowledging that the county has "not been listening well enough to our community." And in March, the county reduced the number of planned detention beds in the new facility by 25 percent, from 154 to 114, in response to what Council Member Larry Gossett called "street heat."

"I think that to the extent that any significant social change has occurred, it's been due to public pressure," Gossett said in April. "This [movement] is an example of that... It made me talk more to my colleagues and say, 'We got to do better.'"

The Seattle city council members sponsoring the budget amendment are Mike O'Brien, Tim Burgess, Jean Godden, Bruce Harrell, and Kshama Sawant. But Williams, the Ending the Prison Industrial Complex activist, warns that moving to zero detention of youth "won't work if it seems like a well-meaning idea from a couple of politicians." He explains:

Stopping locking up young people? That's a scary concept for a lot of people in the city of Seattle. That's real. People call the police when they're scared, or call for young people to be locked up when they're scared. So if we're going to do something else, and people are going to accept that there's another way of doing things, we need to make sure the community is involved in shaping that process and pushing it forward...

I submit that even people for who do horrendous acts—locking up young people, even when they make big mistakes, is not really going to help them sort through what they're going through or prepare them for success when they come out. We talk about locking up young people. They are going to come home. So locking them up is not a solution.

So let's create a space where young people who are reacting to trauma in unhealthy ways... where people who understand what they're going through can... lead them in another direction. Because locking them up, that's just like kicking the can down the road, and the community is going to deal with it later. Prison makes people numb. It makes people hard. What it takes to be respected when you're doing that time and what it takes to be successful when you come home are two completely different things. I want to stop sending kids down that road and create a space that's more therapeutic and healing.

We can't just expect the community... to work on this after work or in between jobs and whatever and put together this wonderful proposal while the funding and the resources are going somewhere else. So this is it. This is how we find the answer to that question that everyone is asking. Let's create spaces for people who believe there's another way so we can find that way.

This post has been updated since its original publication.