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  • Glenn R. McGloughlin / Shutterstock.com
  • The inside of the current detention center looks a lot like this. King County has brought down the number of juveniles it incarcerates—but they are still overwhelmingly and disproportionately black youth.

Last Thursday, what was supposed to be a routine, boring ol' land use meeting at the Seattle City Council turned into what one council member calls "the most powerful hearing" he's ever attended at City Hall.

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Up for discussion was putting kids in jail—that is, whether King County should spend $210 million on a replacement for the aging Juvenile Detention Center on 12th Avenue and Alder. (Full disclosure: I volunteer inside the facility on a weekly basis.) Opponents say the money should be spent on a community center instead. King County voters approved the project, 55 to 45 percent, in 2012.

King County officials explained that they want the city to amend its land use code to have greater flexibility in how they meet design objectives for the new juvie—things like going beyond maximum width rules in a few places.

But for past two years, a vocal group has been pointing out that the detention center is a glaring example of institutional racism: about 10% of King County's juvenile population is black, but in 2013, black youth made up 42% of those incarcerated. They called on the city not to make it any easier for the county to proceed with the replacement jail and to reject the amendments to the land use code.

"We have a terrible problem with racial disparity that is a result of our system and how it works," acknowledged Claudia Balducci, one of King County planners behind the project (also, oddly, the mayor of Bellevue), at a forum organized by the End the Prison Industrial Complex in June. "Building a [new] facility will not fix that, will not make it better, but will not make it worse."

The main reason to build the new "Children and Family Justice Center," she reiterated last week, is that the old structure is decrepit and renovations would be prohibitively expensive. State law mandates that counties operate a juvenile detention center.

And the new jail would reduce the number of detention beds from 210 to 154. Over the past decade, by expanding alternative to incarceration programs, the county has brought the monthly juvenile jail population down from hundreds to around 60 or 70. "We agree wholeheartedly that we need to focus more energy, and give more support to preventive measures, but it’s also a reality that there are circumstances where detention is needed,” Balducci has said.

But whoo boy, did the opponents of the youth jail mobilize and turn out for the land-use hearing. They packed the chambers and for two hours, offered scathing public comment from a massively diverse group. Watch it here.

"Youth, parents, faith leaders, professors and even victims of violent crime showed up to deliver passionate testimony about their concerns around building a new youth jail," Council Member Mike O'Brien told me afterwards in an e-mail.

"Listening to a black father testify about raising kids who could make no mistakes for fear of criminalization, contrasted with a white mother’s testimony that when her kids made a mistake it was simply a mistake, painted a clear picture of ongoing racial inequities in our system," O'Brien, who sponsored the land use amendment bill, said. "I am still digesting all that I heard and will be for some time."

"These people spoke truth," said Chief Juvenile Court Judge Wesley St. Clair, who testified in favor of the plan. "Nobody got up there and lied about anything."

St. Clair said doing a Racial and Economic Impact Assessment for the project—something the anti-jail campaigners repeatedly called for—is a "good idea." I asked King County officials yesterday whether they plan to carry out one, but they haven't responded.

The racial disparities at the hearing itself were hard to miss: seated at the table was O'Brien and, one after another, six white bureaucrats from the city and county.

Those who offered public comment in favor of the project included King County officials. They, in turn, cited support from neighborhood councils surrounding the Central District jail—represented at the hearing by a small handful of older white residents who also testified in favor of the new jail.

"Where are the 10,000 black people who have been pushed out?" asked Senait Brown. "Who is the community who you speak to when you say that [you have consulted the community about this project]? Is it the people being pushed out to Renton and Kent? I think you need to reevaluate who you are speaking about when you say community."

"The jail has gotten blacker and blacker and that's not ok," added James Williams—something borne out by county data, though the total numbers of incarcerated youth have dropped precipitously. "The county should not move forward unless there's a credible racial impact assessment done. If it's not going to reduce the racial disparities, we can't do it."

To give you an idea of the powerful coalition that dominated the meeting: White pastors from Madrona Presbyterian Church, Keystone United Church of Christ, and St. Lutheran Church in Phinney Ridge all argued against the new youth jail. ("The public was obviously misled," said the Madrona pastor, by the 2012 county ballot language on the levy used to raise funds for the jail.)

Law professors from the University of Washington, Seattle University, as well as a behavioral neuroscience nurse all spoke against the project. Citizens, particularly youth and their families, should not be required to come to a courthouse and jail facility in order to access social services, they argued. And "there is nothing humane or respectful about detention," said immigrant rights activist Maru Mora Villalpando, who has helped lead a wave of activism against the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

The room turned quiet when Seattle resident Andy Varyu, who is white, talked about the murder of his grandmother by two young men—brothers—who were black. As victims, he said, they were allowed to park for free at the courthouse. That privilege was not extended to the family of the alleged perpetrators, who had their car towed—even though, he said, "They needed the help."

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The criminal justice process is institutionally racist and, he concluded, "if that's flawed, this building is going to be flawed."

This issue will be back up for discussion in committee on September 30.

This post has been updated to reflect the correct margin in the 2012 vote.