Activists have targeted city and county government in an effort to halt the construction of a new youth jail.
Activists have targeted city and county government in an effort to halt the construction of a new youth jail. Ana Sofia Knauf

The Seattle City Council today took a step in support of activists fighting a new youth jail planned for the Central District. The bill, approved 5-2 today*, is a small, wonky change to the city's land use code that will not alone halt construction of the juvie. Nonetheless, it brought the intense, years-long debate over the proposed new King County Children and Family Justice Center back to council chambers.

“Our country and this city in dire straits with what we’re doing to our people," Council President Bruce Harrell said of racial disproportionality in the criminal justice system nationwide. "We are killing our country, killing our people."

The bill, sponsored by Council Member Mike O'Brien, and approved today, aims to help to help activists who oppose the new jail get one more chance to appeal the city permit that will allow the project to go forward. Many of those activists spoke up during a charged public comment session and occasionally heckled supporters of the project.

Voters approved the center—which comprises of new courthouse and a new youth jail—in 2012. Supporters say the project is a necessary upgrade from the current dated facility. Opponents say voters were misled in 2012. They argue the project is an unnecessary expansion of a prison industrial complex that disproportionately affects people of color. Activists also say building a new youth jail is antithetical to the city's pledge to abolish youth incarceration. In recent months, some politicians who previously supported the project, including Harrell, have called for a reconsideration of the project's current design.

King County will construct the controversial new building, but because that project will be within the City of Seattle, the city issued a permit for the project. But, as is often the case with city permits, there was a caveat in last year's decision: The permit could be appealed to the city hearing examiner. In January, activists with groups including Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) took advantage of that provision and appealed the permit. They argue, among other things, that the county does not have sufficient plans to address toxic contamination at the site of the new building.

In March, the city's hearing examiner surprised activists when she ruled that she could not, in fact, consider their appeal. Hearing Examiner Sue Tanner ruled that the appeal was not within her jurisdiction because city law does not explicitly specify that she can consider this type of project. As they had been told explicitly to appeal to the hearing examiner, opponents of the project were outraged.

In response, they filed another appeal, this time in King County Superior Court. There, EPIC and other groups are arguing that the appeal should be sent back to the hearing examiner. The county is arguing that a judge should dismiss the appeal. (A hearing is scheduled for Friday.)

As that fight continued, Council Member Mike O'Brien introduced the legislation approved today to specify that the hearing examiner could in fact consider an appeal of this project. O'Brien's bill is retroactive to April 2015. Still, today's vote does not guarantee that activists will get another shot at making their case before the hearing examiner. Their chances rest on Friday's decision in Superior Court. If the court sends the decision back to the hearing examiner, O'Brien's legislation will ensure the hearing examiner has jurisdiction to hear the appeal.

Council Members Tim Burgess and Sally Bagshaw voted against O'Brien's proposal today, speaking in support of the new jail and courthouse. Burgess and Bagshaw also attempted to amend O'Brien's bill to stop it from being retroactive. From the dais, Burgess listed statistics showing that King County has dramatically reduced the number of charges brought against juveniles and the number of juveniles incarcerated. “I believe history will look back and show that King County has led the nation in reforming juvenile justice," Burgess said.

"We hear those statistics," Council President Bruce Harrell responded before voting in support of O'Brien's bill, "but in this country we know we are at war with this evil called mass incarceration.”

In a rare move, King County officials showed up in city council chambers to speak in support of the project during public comment. Anthony Wright, director of King County's Facilities Management Division, said that if the project was canceled, the council would lose millions to the contractor on the project. King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg told the council, “I understand that it has become a symbol for dissatisfaction with the criminal justice system... I think we have a lot of shared values around that, but the time for symbolism is over.” Citing gun violence involving juveniles, Satterberg told the council, “youth have to be detained if they shoot somebody and opponents still have no answer for that."

Protesters in the audience booed Wright and Satterberg. Nick Straley, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, which has joined EPIC in fighting the project, called the hearing examiner's decision a "legal trick."

Kshama Sawant, the only city council member to vote in 2014 against a land use change allowing the county to build youth jail, argued today's vote was not only a technical fix but a referendum on government priorities. Sawant linked the cost of the youth jail to other controversial city issues, including a proposed new police station in north Seattle and sweeps of homeless encampments.

“In the context of capitalism, the way politics works is absolutely not neutral," Sawant said. "It’s a question of who has power... What [local government] wants to spend money on is not neutral."

*Council Members Lorena González and Debora Juarez were absent.