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King County will push juvenile justice bias study

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King County Executive Dow Constantine

The most commonly levied complaint against the construction of a new juvenile detention center – named the Children and Family Justice Center by King County – is that it will continue to incarcerate predominantly black and Hispanic youth. In response, King County Executive Dow Constantine will shortly announce the creation of the Juvenile Justice Equity Steering Committee, made up of 36 high profile names in law enforcement, education, mental health and activism, to draft recommendations for the various institutions that play a part in the pipeline to prison.

Since 2000, the number of youth held in the aging detention facility off 12th Avenue has fallen dramatically – from an average of 200 to 45. But the facility’s population remains about two-thirds youth of color, which is vastly disproportionate to the demographics of King County, recently named the whitest large county in the country.

Critics of the new, $210 million, voter-approved facility say the money should instead be invested into social services and preventative measures. “Imagine,” wrote Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant recently, “the impact on crime if a $200 million investment in youth jobs” were made.

Proponents, on the other hand, contend that the new facility will be more humane than the current center and better equipped to provide necessary services. Further, those who work inside the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, including director of the youth facility Pamela Jones, argue the issue is systemic, as much on the school districts, police departments and mental health institutions as it is on the detention facility.

Construction on the facility is scheduled to begin in Spring 2016, with completion slated for 2019.

The steering committee represents a decent cross-section of those who touch the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. From law-enforcement, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole and King County Sherriff John Urquhart are both members. From education, the superintendents of the Seattle, Highline, Kent and Federal Way school districts all agreed to participate. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg and Superior Court Judges Wesley Saint Clair and Susan Craighead will represent the justice system.

The committee also has strong representation from those on the advocacy side of the equation including leaders of organizations like the Mockingbird Society; YMCA; Legacy of Equality, Leadership, and Organizing (LELO); SafeFutures; the Northwest Network of Bisexual, Trans, Lesbian and Gay Survivors of Abuse; and the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation.

King County spokesperson Alexa Vaughn pointed to youth and foster parent involvement on the committee as well. She emphasized that some members, including Community Justice Program Director with American Friends Service Committee Dustin Washington, have been vocally opposed to the construction of the new facility.

“What you’ll see,” said Vaughn, “is it’s about half community leaders and half institutional leaders. We want to create an environment where we can open up minds. There are institutions all along the pipeline that can do something.”

The committee will begin meeting twice a month in September, developing recommendations for improving system-wide disproportionality. And while there is no formal means to institute these recommendations, the theory seems to be that by making them public, officials will face pressure to make changes within their respective parts of the pipeline.

  

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