KING COUNTY EXECUTIVE Ron Sims has come up with a plan to reform the county's juvenile justice system. In order to save the Department of Youth Services -- which houses juvenile offenders and runs probation and rehabilitation programs -- Sims believes the county must destroy it.

Getting a new, reform-oriented manager won't work. Giving the department more money isn't the answer, either. The department is too broken to be fixed. Youth Services, which has an annual budget of $20 million, has had three directors come and go in the past five years. Charges of racism and sexism have plagued the department's management, and last February, the presiding judge of the juvenile court wrote a letter criticizing administrative foul-ups, particularly the department's inability to supervise the youths it puts on probation. Indeed, county officials use phrases like "endemic problems" created by an "entrenched culture" to describe why -- rather than restructuring things -- they want to start from scratch. This comes despite an acknowledgment from the plan's own proponents that not everything has been done to see if the department could be salvaged. According to County Council Member Larry Gossett, the county has never conducted a comprehensive study to determine why the department is so messed up. However, the county is so desperate, they are going ahead and dismantling the whole department.

Can it be that easy? Not according to critics, who believe that Sims' plan will just create a host of new problems.

Sims wants to break the department into two pieces -- probation and detention -- and farm them out to different county departments. Probation will now fall under the control of the King County Superior Court judges. And the detention side of the soon-to-be-gutted department will fall under the adult corrections center.

Putting probation under the jurisdiction of Superior Court judges has raised some concerns. "[We judges] take [over juvenile probation] with some hesitancy," says presiding juvenile court judge Laura Inveen. "It will mean more responsibility for us, but I'm not saying that it shouldn't be taken by the court."

It's the fate of the detention center -- folding it into adult corrections -- that critics fret about most. This aspect of the plan, they worry, may be part of the nerve-wracking trend toward treating juvenile delinquents like adult criminals. In the past few years, state legislators have been toughening juvenile-justice laws, making it easier for youths to get jail time in adult facilities. This means more juveniles are trickling into the adult corrections system.

The adult criminal-justice system is about punishing and warehousing prisoners. The juvenile criminal-justice system is supposed to be about rehabilitating youths and making sure they don't get back into trouble once they leave the system.

If King County puts the two systems under the same manager, the lines could get blurred, and not in favor of the more socially liberal policies of the juvenile system.

"I think that it raises concerns," says Pat Arthur, head of Columbia Legal Services. Arthur advocates reforming the Department of Youth Services, but she's not sure the current idea is such a good one. "Managing juveniles in a correctional setting is different than managing adults," she says.

Look at the numbers. The juvenile detention center houses around 180 youths. The county adult jail system is far bigger, with a staff of 831 and a prison population of 3,000.

If juvenile detention is folded into adult corrections, a new bureaucracy is formed. That bureaucracy may not look at the juvenile inmates as having unique concerns, even though they will continue to be housed separately from the adult criminal population.

"There are budgetary issues to consider," says Vincent Schiraldi, the director of the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. "All government departments are forced to grapple with trade-offs. The guy that's in charge of the juvenile division is going to be the low man on the totem pole when fighting for resources." The ordinance contains no provisions that would prevent this. It merely dictates that all correctional facilities be maintained, and that the county judges play a role in creating and maintaining rehabilitation programs in the juvenile facility.

Mike Wilkins, the interim director of the Department of Youth Services, stands behind the plan. He says that the adult corrections system was chosen to run the juvenile detention facility because adult corrections is already experienced with handling the complicated operations, like a juvenile jail.

Wilkins cites three safeguards the county is putting into place to make sure that the doomsday predictions don't happen. First, he asserts, since the juvenile detention center isn't physically going anywhere, the same concerned professionals -- judges, public defenders, probation officers -- who have worked with the detention center will raise alarms if things start to go downhill.

Second, an oversight committee will be formed to make sure that the adult corrections bureaucracy doesn't ignore its unique responsibility for the juvenile detention center.

Third, Wilkins says, if things don't go the way everybody wants, the county ordinance has a built-in emergency parachute that can be pulled after two years: The adult corrections bureaucracy would lose the detention center, which would be put under the control of the Superior Court judges.

Judge Inveen says she and other judges have signed off on the proposal, despite the potential consequences. "This is a really big responsibility, so we wanted to make sure that there were specific safeguards for [adult corrections]," she says.

It's apparent that there is a little trepidation about the road ahead, even among Sims' supporters. Nevertheless, the county is going ahead with the plan. The council approved it on Saturday, and it will be implemented in early January.

"It's going to be a new experience," Inveen concedes. "And it's not going to be easy."

Support The Stranger