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  • Ansel Herz
  • During a neighborhood council meeting on January 10, Bellevue Mayor Claudia Balducci, who also works with King County on juvenile justice, defends the county's plans to build a new juvenile detention center.

King County is pushing ahead with plans to build a $210 million replacement for its aging Juvenile Detention Center in the Central District. This afternoon, the council will hold a budget hearing to consider approving the contract for its construction. And the county recently selected the Howard S. Wright company to build the new facility, which includes a new courthouse and jail. The project was approved by King County voters in August of 2012.

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But county officials now face opposition from the Squire Park Community Council, a city-recognized community council that represents the Central District.

On January 19, the council sent a letter to county officials asking King County to "place on hold its plans to construct a replacement children's prison at 14th Avenue and E Spruce Street and begin working with our community and other concerned communities to find ways to better use $210 million in order to keep our children out of prison."

The letter adds: "The membership of Squire Park is concerned that a previous letter from our organization to the City on a zoning code issue has been interpreted and used as part of a mandate to support a jail, which our neighborhood, in fact, strongly opposes."

The letter comes after a packed January 10 meeting of the neighborhood council, during which the members unanimously voted to send the letter. At that meeting, which was fraught with emotion and racial tension, chief juvenile judge Wesley St. Clair—author of this Slog guest editorial supporting the new juvie—got up and said, "The efforts of YUIR, EPIC, and European Dissent are critical. I'm tired of checking the box. I'm tired of managing a system that has a disproportionate impact on my people."

While the county has significantly reduced the number of children in detention over roughly the past decade, the racial disproportionality of those jailed has increased. About 10% of King County's juvenile population is black, but in 2013, black youth made up 42% of those incarcerated.

The full text of the Squire Park Community Council's letter is below. (UPDATE: Squire Park Council President Joanna Cullen did not sign the letter, according to Amir Islam Jerome Welch, the council's Youth Justice committee chairman. Her name has been removed from the signatories.)

Mr. Executive and Honorable Councilmembers:

At the unanimous vote of the membership of Squire Park attending our January 10 quarterly meeting, the Squire Park Community Council requests that King County place on hold its plans to construct a replacement children's prison at 14th Avenue and E Spruce Street and begin working with our community and other concerned communities to find ways to better use $210 million in order to keep our children out of prison.

The board of Squire Park has had some input into the external building design but has, until now, taken no position on the prison as such. The membership of Squire Park is concerned that a previous letter from our organization to the City on a zoning code issue has been interpreted and used as part of a mandate to support a jail, which our neighborhood, in fact, strongly opposes.

Building this facility is an expansion of the prison industrial complex. Disproportionality within the justice system is acknowledged by the County, but not the underlying racism. A racial impact assessment, honoring the County and City's own stated processes, should have been done in advance. It was not! Only after intense community pressure did the County agree to do it, but not in a way that is accountable to the community.

The County must move forward in an accountable way. The membership of Squire Park supports the voices of those most impacted, and believes incarceration is fundamentally the wrong policy for our children. This past week Dow Constantine appeared on public radio and spoke of early learning as a positive action for prevention. The membership of Squire Park agrees that prevention is more successful than incarceration and implores the County to engage with our community and other concerned communities to determine more effective ways to keep our children out of prison, before the design and construction of any new facility for youth justice.

We appreciate your consideration of our community and request that you meet with our Committee on Youth Justice, before approving any contractor agreement to continue with the design of the facility as planned.

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In appreciation of your service,

Squire Park Community Council
Committee on Youth Justice
Amir Islam Jerome Welch, committee chairman
Committee on Youth Justice Committee members