A last ditch effort by the Seattle City Council to help anti-youth jail activists has failed to slow construction of the controversial project. In a ruling Tuesday, the Washington State Court of Appeals upheld a city permit that will allow King County to build a new jail and courthouse in the Central District. Activists had appealed the permit.
Voters approved a levy in 2012 to fund the proposed new juvenile detention facility and courthouse known as the King County Children and Family Justice Center. Opponents of the project argue a new facility will further the disproportionate incarceration of people of color. They argue the money should be spent on alternatives to incarceration instead. Supporters say the project is a necessary upgrade from the current dated facility. They also point to declining youth incarceration in King County as evidence the county is emphasizing alternatives to jail. Data from 2007 to 2016 show that the daily population count at the youth jail has fallen by 43 percent but the percentage of bookings of black and Hispanic children increased 9 percent.
This debate has raged for years with anti-jail activists attempting both protest and lawsuits. One of their legal fights began when Seattle issued the permit to allow King County to begin constructing the project.
In December 2016, the city issued the county a permit with the typical caveat that it could be appealed to the city hearing examiner. In January 2017, activists from various organizations including Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) appealed. The decision in that appeal was a twist.
Rather than ruling for or against the appeal, Hearing Examiner Sue Tanner ruled that she didn’t have jurisdiction to consider the appeal because city law did not explicitly specify that she could consider that type of project. Activists then took their case to King County Superior Court. The county and the construction company working on the project argued the appeal should be dismissed. EPIC lost in King County Superior Court, so they appealed to the Washington State Court of Appeals.
As the fight played out, city council members sympathetic to the anti-jail activists attempted to bolster their chances. The council approved legislation sponsored by Council Member Mike O’Brien to alter city code to specify that the hearing examiner can in fact consider the specific category of project the youth jail falls under. The bill was retroactive to April 2015.
In a decision issued Tuesday, the Washington State Court of Appeals upheld the lower court decision and rejected the city council’s attempt to retroactively change its land use rules.
The Appeals Court decision says EPIC failed to file its appeal in court within the required 21-day window. Despite the council's retroactive ordinance, the court writes that legislation cannot be applied retroactively when doing so would affect vested rights. The court calls the hearing examiner's decision "sound" and "proper." The court upholds the permit and says EPIC must pay attorneys fees and costs for the county and construction company.
EPIC acknowledges it filed the legal complaint later than the process allows, but argues that’s because they were specifically instructed to appeal through the administrative process before the hearing examiner, not in court.
Asked about the ruling Tuesday, Knoll Lowney, the attorney representing EPIC, said, “Essentially we are being denied our day in court because the city lied to us about the appellate process.” Lowney said EPIC is likely to appeal. I've reached out to the city hearing examiner
and county and will update this post if I hear back. UPDATE: Anthony Wright, King County director of facilities management, says the county is "pleased" with the ruling. "Construction continues on the replacement for the decrepit, obsolete Youth Services Center, and we are on schedule for opening the new facility in 2019."
The case is not EPIC’s only legal fight. The group has also argued that the levy to fund the project was misleading because it did not explicitly state a plan to build a jail. Last year, the appeals court agreed. If that decision stands, it could leave a major hole in the county's budget for the project. The county has appealed that ruling to the state Supreme Court.