Lawmakers have been wrestling with the question of the best avenue of recourse for youthful offenders. In December, the Department of Construction and Inspections approved King County's request to build a new youth jail and courthouse. The county faced opposition from activists who opposed both the jail and youth incarceration as a whole. Protestors demonstrated outside the mayor's home in December, joined by Seattle-bred rapper Macklemore. Mayor Murray firmly held that intervening in the construction exceeded his scope of power. Proponents of the construction argue that it merely serves to replace the dilapidated, existing juvenile justice complex.
However, city council member Mike O' Brien is disappointed by the construction, stating "Jailing youth perpetuates a vicious cycle of violence, makes detainees more likely to reoffend, and disproportionately impacts people of color, particularly black youth.”
Commenting on the current facility, presiding judge Susan Craighead said “It feels like a jail. We want to take a more modern approach … that will be less stigmatizing to youth.” While Constantine stressed that "zero youth incarceration," a mantra of protesters, is "not a plan," he is open-minded about exploring options less punitive than jail.
Now, the county has offered an alternative to the construction of the controversial new jail facility. In his State of the County address, King County Executive Dow Constantine made a proposal for what he calls “Safe Spaces” for youths. Modeled after a successful Portland program, the county would construct two new centers wherein juveniles accused of lesser offenses would have access to rehabilitative services, in lieu of detention. Examples of “lesser offenses” include "school fights, shoplifting and [violating] a court order by running away from a foster or group home.”
Eligible minors would be connected to housing and education among other benefits and services. Safe spaces, or reception centers as they're also known, would not take the place of controversial jail facility, but would serve as an alternative for at least some juvenile offenders. Despite continued public opposition, a hearing examiner denied the final appeal to prevent a permit for construction. Moving forward, King County has signed a $154 million construction contract with Howard S. Wright.
The proposal for Safe Spaces is in its earliest stages. At present the idea has seen no formal discussion by "judges, or a committee that includes county officials and community members convened to address racial disparity in the juvenile-justice system,” according to presiding judge Laura Inveen. There is no proposed budget or formalized plan for the endeavor as of yet, however, Constantine described his vision in moderate detail during the address. There would be one facility in Seattle and another in South King County; these would be staffed around the clock, provide food, clothing and a safe place to sleep at night. Upon admission to the facility, youths would be interviewed by trained professionals who would determine the best course of action based on the minor's specific circumstances.
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