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Demonstrators crowded the King County Council last year to protest a vote authorizing the jail project. Now they're filing a lawsuit. Ansel Herz

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The hits keep coming against King County's plans to tear down the Central District's youth detention center and replace it with a brand new $210 million facility. The county has long said the existing center is decrepit and needs to be replaced. Anti-prison campaigners believe building a new jail would perpetuate racial harm, since the county jails black youth at disproportionately high rates.

After years of protests, Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) announced Wednesday it is suing the county, seeking an injunction to stop the building of what the county calls a "Children and Family Justice Center." The center would include 114 detention beds, along with courtrooms, offices for judges, and expanded spaces for court services. The county planned to break ground on the new facility this year.

The lawsuit (PDF) makes three arguments: First, it alleges that the county used misleading ballot language in a 2012 property tax levy proposition to fund the new facility. The language described the facility as a center that "services the justice needs of children and families"—it made no mention of a jail or incarceration.

55 percent of county voters approved the levy. "Had the ballot informed voters that the levy would fund a facility to incarcerate children," said Jenn Hagedorn, a member of EPIC, "the measure never would have passed."

Second, the suit claims that the ballot language violates a state law that bars the county from collecting the taxes authorized by the levy after one year has expired since its passage. This gets pretty technical, but here's the claim: "After 2013, King County was required to revert to the pre-election rate and could only increase property taxes pursuant to the statutory 'limit factor' of RCW 84.55."

Knoll Lowney, the Seattle-based attorney who recently won a multi-million dollar settlement in the Triad development case, said the ballot language "did not contain the magic words that would be necessary to carry that levy forward into future years."

Third, the suit cites the county's own 2011 analysis of the building, which described the building as "generally in good condition." The analysis said repairs to the building would cost a total of $795,981—not millions of dollars, as the county has repeatedly claimed. Lowney alleged the county had "cooked the books."

The lawsuit makes broader arguments against youth incarceration. "Incarcerating a youth for low-level crimes makes them more likely to reoffend than those who were not incarcerated," the suit states. The suit points to the county's acknowledgment that racial disparities have grown, even as the sheer size of its youth detention population has been drastically reduced. Eight percent of county youths are black, but they represent about half of those detained.

Alexa Vaughn, a King County spokesperson involved with its Youth Justice program, declined to comment. She said officials are still reviewing the lawsuit.

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The campaign against the county's plans has come a long way. King County Superior Court presiding judge Susan Craighead once called it a "cancer." Later, she said she stood by the comments and, at the same time, issued an apology for not listening well enough to community members. At the municipal level, EPIC led efforts to get the Seattle city council to pass a resolution abolishing youth detention. Then, the city allocated $600,000 in funding for a joint effort between EPIC and Social Justice Fund Northwest to create community-led alternatives to youth incarceration.

James Williams, an EPIC member who is deeply involved in that effort, along with formerly incarcerated youth, said county officials didn't believe that "youth and the black community would organize like we have." He cast the lawsuit as the latest front in a historic civil rights battle. "This lawsuit gives King County an opportunity to back out of an ill-conceived plan," he said, "while still keeping their dignity."

One year ago, King County reduced the number of detention beds planned for the facility by one fourth—a change that County Council Member Larry Gossett attributed to the "street heat" drummed up by the anti-jail campaign. The Central District Community Council, Solid Ground, and a coalition of Seattle law students joined the opposition campaign. As Sydney reported, a prison rights group recently raised environmental concerns about inadequate protections against toxins at the location. But the county said the new building is "being designed to high standards and will pose no health risks."

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