County audit details grim conditions at Capitol Hill youth jail

Young detainees report concerns with drinking-water quality, long periods without visitors, lack of substance-abuse treatment and staffing shortages.

Patricia Hall Clark Children and Family Justice Center

The Patricia Hall Clark Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC) in Seattle, Feb. 5, 2020. (Matt M. McKnight/Cascade PBS)

When UW law professor Kim Ambrose and a group of her students arrived at the Patricia H. Clark Children & Family Justice Center last month to lead a legal rights workshop, they were turned away.

The jail, located at the south end of Capitol Hill, keeps youth accused of crimes in locked cells as they wait for their court cases to be adjudicated. Ambrose founded and currently directs a legal clinic that gives law students an opportunity to represent youth in court and work to fight racial bias in the juvenile justice system. She often brings students to help teach youth at the Justice Center about their legal rights. 

The day they were turned away, staff gave them two reasons: There was an incident in the unit they were supposed to visit, and there weren’t enough staff to supervise them in other units. 

Ambrose said this was one illustration of how center staffing shortages impact youths’ access to important programming. In late April, the King County Auditor’s Office released an audit report concerning conditions at the youth jail that showed a lack of support for young people in long detention stays at the center, which was originally designed for short-term stays. 

Youth lack access to mental health support or substance-abuse treatment typically offered for long-term residents of juvenile rehabilitation facilities operated by the Department of Children, Youth, and Families. Staffing shortages due to job insecurity and burnout has also truncated educational programs or canceled enrichment sessions for youth in the facility. They’re left alone in their cells for longer periods, which can lead to increased stress as well as make violent behavior more likely, according to the report. Other problems identified in the audit included youth concerns about drinking-water quality and long periods without seeing any visitors, including their attorneys. The mental health and enrichment programs offered at the youth detention facility are outlined on their website.

While the auditor's report said the facility is short between 15 and 30 detention officers last year, department officials report they were down to seven vacancies for juvenile detention officers as of June 1 and more would be coming onto the team in July.

Some community members might feel unsafe without the jail in place, but Ambrose isn’t one of them. “I worry more about the damage that you’re doing to kids when you’re holding them inside,” she said.

Budget deficits 

King County’s budget deficit is a major obstacle to fixing conditions at the center and providing necessary services, according to Jorge L. Barón, Metropolitan King County Councilmember and chair of the Council’s Law and Justice Committee. 

The justice center relied somewhat on volunteers to provide programming in the past, but the pandemic took away some of that strength, Barón said. 

“Honestly, I don’t think we should rely on volunteers like that,” Barón said. “That would be something that the county could fund and support.”

King County faces a projected deficit of $35 million in its 2025-2026 General Fund, King County Executive Dow Constantine said in his 2024 State of the County address. The General Fund is a portion of the county’s budget that includes support for health and safety services such as public health clinics, regional gun violence prevention and alternatives to detention in the justice system, according to the King County Office of the Executive. The Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention is also supported by the General Fund. 

“The General Fund is currently deeply constricted, thus implementation of audit recommendations requiring additional staffing or funding is subject to available resources,” Dwight Dively, chief operating officer for the King County Office of the Executive, wrote in a response letter appended to the audit report. “In addition, available funding, staffing, and constrained workloads may impact timing of work related to fulfilling these recommendations, particularly given the number of vacant positions in DAJD.” 

One reason for the deficit is that the state Legislature hasn’t lifted caps on property taxes for Washington counties to keep up with inflation and rising costs, Constantine said in his address.

An ongoing debate

The youth jail was built after King County voters passed a measure in 2012 that authorized a new levy to replace the deteriorating Youth Services Center at 12th Avenue and East Alder Street with a new facility. It opened in February 2020, despite protests by “No New Youth Jail” activists. 

Since then, the CCFJC has remained controversial. In July 2020, King County Executive Dow Constantine pledged to convert the youth jail to other uses by 2025 and brought together a “Care & Closure” advisory committee to work toward ending youth detention in King County. Members of the committee included impacted parents and youth as well as representatives from county departments and community partners. 

The committee made six recommendations to make it possible to replace detaining youth accused of crimes by bringing them to a respite and receiving center, to send them back home when possible with extra support services for their families, and to provide housing at community care homes for youth who cannot return home for safety reasons. Of the six recommendations, four have received at least some level of support from all committee members. The first two, to maintain a 24/7 respite and receiving center for arrested youth and to provide short-term housing at this center, remain in dispute. 

Some community members and leaders have raised concerns about the risk to public safety if youth accused of crimes are allowed outside of a secure detention facility. 

Metropolitan King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn proposed a motion in April against closing the facility, stating concerns about allowing youth who have committed violent crimes to live in the community without being locked up. Dunn’s office declined to comment for this story.

According to data from the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, serious youth criminal cases have increased significantly since 2021. The number of cases filed in juvenile court involving a felony offense against a person or a weapon jumped from 170 in 2021 to 370 in 2023. 

Jimmy Hung, division chief of the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, said he believes closing the youth detention center within the decade is an unrealistic goal.

“I believe that with the right resources and the right motivation and the right intentionality, King County could one day create a community where we don’t need a juvenile detention facility,” Hung said. “Now, I’m 50 years old. I don’t think it’s going to happen in my lifetime.” 

He believes the county isn’t near where it needs to be in supporting young people and addressing gun violence in the community. 

About one in five adults in King County report storing a firearm in or around their home, and about a third of firearm owners with kids don’t lock up their firearms, according to the county’s Lock It Up program. King County data show that an average of 197 King County residents died due to a firearm each year from 2018 to 2022, including by suicide.

Instead of trying to close the youth detention facility, Hung said he thinks the county should accept the reality that youth are staying for longer periods than they used to, and focus on restoring the level of staffing and resources necessary to meet their needs knowing the negative impact that incarceration can have on young people. 

One area the county could work is expediting court cases to shorten detention in the first place, he said. 

Research from The Sentencing Project concludes that not only is incarceration an ineffective deterrent for youth crime, but it harms their physical and mental health, impedes their educational and career success, and can expose them to abuse, including racial discrimination. A 2019 Washington study found that youth who had spent time in a juvenile detention facility were 28% less likely to graduate high school. A one-day count of youth in 2019 also found that Black youth were six times more likely to be detained than white youth across the nation.  

Detaining youth awaiting trial also makes them more likely to be incarcerated as adults and to commit future crimes, according to The Sentencing Project. A 2020 Washington study found that each day a youth spends in detention increases by one percentage point the likelihood they will commit a felony in the future. 

The state audit report on conditions at the youth jail identified several policy reasons that are causing youth to spend more time in detention than in past years. One is changes to state law that have made it easier to divert youth accused of lower-level crimes to community organizations, meaning the youth who are detained are those accused of the most serious crimes, which take longer to process through the courts.  

Another recommendation in the audit report is to collect information on the needs of youth detained at the detention center. The audit’s first recommendation notes that having access to this information would help the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention better consider how to meet the needs of youth, especially those who stay in secure detention for long periods. CHOOSE 180, a Seattle nonprofit advocating on behalf of and serving incarcerated youth, would also benefit from this information, according to its director of communications and marketing, Jayanna Thompson. The group has offered services in the King County youth jail for the past two years and while they are not currently working in the youth jail, they organization is working to renew its contract.

“As a protected class, there were a lot of barriers to receiving information on the youth we as an organization were serving,” the group said, in an email statement from Thompson. “Our CHOOSE Freedom program is 14 weeks long and based on the length of stay the materials could be altered to fit the needs of the youth. However, without access to this information, our navigators would often find that upon returning, a group participant would not be present, only to find out that they had been moved to another facility (a planned move), that could have necessitated a different approach for that young person.” 

State officials noted that releasing information about the detainees is complicated because of privacy laws. But they are now posting online more data about the facility.

 

This story has been updated to include some more recent data and information about the youth jail program.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Julia Park

Julia Park

Julia Park is a news intern at Cascade PBS and a senior at the University of Washington, studying journalism and English. Follow her on X @thejuliastory or email her at julia.park@cascadepbs.org.