Last Thursday, a fight involving eight kids at the King County youth jail resulted in injuries to the kids and seven staff members, forcing the jail to cancel some family and attorney visits. The injuries left the facility short-staffed and required kids to spend four additional hours locked in their rooms during the day Friday, though regular programming returned later that day. The fight came as youth jail bookings and average length of stays have climbed compared to this time last year. 

The jail housed about 41 kids on Friday. 

In 2021, King County Executive Dow Constantine shared his plan to close the secure youth detention center within the Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center by 2025. At the time, Constantine boasted that the average daily population for youth had dropped from 80 to 15 over the last decade. However, the numbers at the jail began creeping up in 2022, and they rose again this year by about 33%, with the average daily population rising from 23.2 for the first six months of 2022 to 34.7 so far this year. The average length of a kid’s stay in jail increased by about a week compared to the first six months of last year.

King County Executive Spokesperson Chase Gallagher acknowledged the increase but said the data doesn’t definitively point to an upward trend and may be a “summertime anomaly.” One other reason for the increase in the number of incarcerated children may relate to the fact that King County’s youth jail houses the kids who escaped from the Echo Glen Children’s Center earlier this year. The length of their stays may impact both the overall population and the average length of a stay. The plan to close the detention center remains on track, Gallagher said. 

As the number of kids in detention increases, the jail faces a staffing shortage with a job vacancy rate of about 21%. Noah Haglund, spokesperson for the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, said the department expects six new officers to join in August and in early September, and the County offers hiring bonuses to help with recruitment. Haglund also stressed that the vacancies did not contribute to the fight Thursday, as two officers staffed the hall where the eight kids fought, which exceeds national standards of one officer per every eight kids in secure detention.

However the jail appears to be working on a razor-thin margin when it comes to staffing numbers, affecting conditions for the kids inside that jail. After the fight, a facility nurse treated the children for superficial injuries, according to Haglund. Staff dealt with sprains, a shoulder injury, and a fractured wrist. Some could not immediately return to work. The injuries to staff resulted in an additional 30 minutes of room time for the kids on Saturday, and that stretched to one to two additional hours on Sunday, according to Haglund. Of the seven staff involved, four had returned to work by Monday.

Any additional time kids spend locked in a room can heighten the chances of them getting frustrated and lashing out, said Dominique Davis, founder of Community Passageways, a nonprofit working to prevent youth from entering the criminal justice system and helping those already involved. Davis attributed some of the increasing numbers of kids in detention to the increased availability of guns on the streets as well as to drugs flooding Black and brown communities. He emphasized the need to continue to invest in better programs and better staffing in King County’s youth detention center to ensure the programming inside helps kids avoid returning to jail or prison. 

Prior to the fight, staffing shortages hadn’t affected programming for kids. Staff provided programming outside of the kids’ rooms most of the time, aside from staff breaks, which range from 15-30 minutes a couple times a shift, Haglund said. 

Staff held the kids involved in the “group disturbance” in solitary for safety reasons, according to Haglund. Over the weekend the kids returned to small-group activities. As of Monday, staff continued to work on plans to return the youth to full programming.