Activists rallied outside of the King County Youth Detention Center in January after they filed a legal appeal to block reconstruction efforts.
Activists rallied outside of the King County Youth Detention Center in January after they filed a legal appeal to block reconstruction efforts. ASK

In January, anti-youth jail activists filed an appeal against the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) for issuing a master use permit to the county to build a new Children and Family Justice Center—a project approved by voters in 2012.

Their appeal contested the permit and asked for an additional environmental review study to be done. City officials repeatedly told activists that they would be able to appeal the permit to the city hearing examiner as a means of recourse.

However, on Thursday, city hearing examiner Sue Tanner dismissed the activists' appeal because, according to her ruling (PDF), the permitting issue is outside her office's jurisdiction.

Despite other city officials claiming the permit could be appealed to her office, Tanner wrote in her decision that it actually falls under a category of land use permit that doesn’t qualify for appeal.

“How can you blame the community for calling this institutional racism?" asked attorney Knoll Lowney of Smith & Lowney LLC, which is representing anti-youth jail groups, including Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC). "The City permit explicitly told people to appeal to the Hearing Examiner. But as soon as people of color appealed and were poised to win, Seattle and King County argued that the groups lost their appeal rights— forever—because they followed the Permit's appeal instructions. It's outrageous."

Lowney continued: "Yesterday’s decision, if left in place, will silence the voices of people of color on this project and breed cynicism about the good faith of our local government officials."

When called for comment, a representative from the hearing examiner's office said Tanner is unable to discuss the details of the decision at this time.

In recent months, some King County politicians have expressed concerns about replacing the county's current youth jail, an aging building that some have described as "falling apart." A month after activists protested outside of his Capitol Hill home—and at the beginning of a reelection year—Seattle Mayor Ed Murray called for a second look at the design plans for the new Children and Family Justice Center, which will include youth detention and social services. That same day, Seattle City Council Member Bruce Harrell and King County Council Member Rob Dembowski denounced the idea of rebuilding the youth jail. King County Executive Dow Constantine, who is also up for reelection this year, issued his own letter, which called for a long-term goal of zero youth detention. That week, King County Superior Court Judges Laura Inveen and J. Wesley Saint Clair responded to Murray's request for a design review of the jail and voiced their support for the plan, citing legal requirements. But it doesn't appear that any of that high-profile public debate swayed the hearing examiner.

"If a reviewing body, like the Examiner, lacks jurisdiction over a matter, it has authority to only enter an order of dismissal," Tanner's decision reads.

Here's a brief description of the cases the city examiner hears, according to the Public Guide to Appeals and Hearings Before the Examiner:

Many of the matters considered by the Hearing Examiner relate to land use decisions made by the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) [ed. note: the department has since been renamed the Department of Construction and Inspections] and environmental decisions made by any City department. Land use code interpretations, master use permit decisions and State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) determinations may be appealed to the Hearing Examiner. A master use permit is a permit issued to an applicant that includes all land use (not construction) decisions made by DPD on the application, such as decisions on short subdivisions, conditional use permits, variances, design review, and conditioning of development projects. SEPA determinations include determinations of non-significance and decisions on the adequacy of environmental impact statements.

A snippet from the "expiration and issuance" section of the master use permit (PDF), which was granted by SDCI, reads:

The appealable land use decision on your Master Use Permit (MUP) application has now been published. At the conclusion of the appeal period, your permit will be considered “approved for issuance”. (If your decision is appealed, your permit will be considered “approved for issuance” on the fourth day following the City Hearing Examiner’s decision.) Projects requiring a Council land use action shall be considered “approved for issuance” following the Council’s decision.

Lowney maintained that anti-youth jail activists would continue fighting the county's decision to move forward with the reconstruction the youth detention center.

"The fight to stop this misguided, racist, and un-affordable project will continue," said Lowney. "Mayor Murray and Executive Constantine cannot publicaly [sic] say that they are concerned about how this jail will affect youth of color, while actively seeking to deny them their day in court. We will be consulting with the affected communities so that they may take appropriate steps in the near future in their on-going effort to stop the youth jail.”

Murray's and Constantine's statements are "lip service," representatives with EPIC said in a joint press release (PDF) issued Friday morning. Their proclamations, they said, "do not mean anything to our community if the plan going forwards includes building or allowing for a jail that expands the incarceration of children of color, immigrant children, and undocumented children to be caged, deported or oppressed through upholding institutional racism." They continued:

Dow Constantine and Ed Murray must work together to stop this jail-building project. It is not enough to say that some day we should have zero youth in jail while you build a new jail. We already know what justice deferred looks like, we saw the City’s plan to end homelessness come and go meanwhile developers and landlords prevail and homelessness is in a state of emergency. Murray and Constantine say they recognize that the system is racially targeted and damaging to youth, but they still plan to solve it with programs that make youth go through arrest and then some kind of alternative process. Seattle’s youth should not need to be arrested traumatized by racist police as a doorway to “services.” ...

The answer is to move the resources away from proven racist institutions. Our communities are the experts, and we have known for centuries what prisons and policing are. It is clear that regardless of what anti- incarceration or anti-racist talking points our elected officials occasionally spout, they are still hell bent on building a jail.

In a statement, King County Facilities Management Division Director Anthony Wright said: "We’re pleased to learn that the City of Seattle’s Hearing Examiner resolved the appeal for the Master Use Permit of the Children and Family Justice Center project. This permit allows King County to follow through on voters’ 2012 approval to build a modern, therapeutic and community-centered replacement for the far-outdated Youth Services Center. The new facility will provide a respectful and supportive environment to link youth and families—court involved or not—with services and non-profit organizations in their own communities.”

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Representatives from Murray's and Constantine's offices did not respond to calls for comment.

UPDATE: Representatives with EPIC issued a motion for reconsideration to the hearing examiner's office this afternoon, said Lowney and Nick Straley, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services who joined the activists' legal team. If their motion is denied, said Straley, the next step would be to appeal the decision to King County Superior Court, as recommended by the city attorney's office. The anti-youth jail advocates' legal counsel is skeptical whether they'd have any success in doing so.

This story has been updated.