Controversial youth jail gains preliminary approval in Seattle

The City of Seattle has approved permits for a new, controversial King County-operated youth jail. (Courtesy Erik Ringsmuth)

The City of Seattle approved preliminary permits this week for a controversial, King County-funded youth jail and detention center to be located in the city’s Central District.

The proposed complex, euphemistically-dubbed as a “Children and Family Justice Center” has faced vocal public outcry over not only its proposed cost—$210-million—but also its program. The complex proposes to replace an existing youth jail, dubbed the Youth Services Center, currently located on the same site. The proposed penal structure would include, along with 112 new beds for incarcerated youth, a collection of community and supportive service spaces. According to a project website, the complex will be configured with a  flexible design so that its space can be converted to non-detention space in the future, if desired.

The approvals pertain to a preliminary land-use application; designs for the complex have yet to be revealed. However, a cohort of social equality-focused activists has sought to derail the project before it gets off the ground. The #NoNewYouthJail Coalition has sprung up to oppose the development and is currently circulating an online petition to raise awareness on the issue and voice outcry over the proposed plans. The complex was approved in 2012 via a voter referendum that sought to levy new taxes for the construction of the project. Organizers against the complex state (via the petition website) that the proposition “promised to build a facility that ‘services the justice needs of children and families’—with no mention that its primary aim was to incarcerate children under the age of eighteen. So, voters passed a levy to provide funds for youth justice… but unfortunately, those funds will support the opposite: continuing the injustice of incarceration of our most vulnerable young people.”

Activists, many of which are aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement, argue that the project represents the perpetuation of fundamentally unjust—and racist—design and law enforcement practices. They argue that while black youth in the Seattle make up approximately five-percent of the overall population, they represent roughly half of the incarcerated youth population. The activists also contend that building a new jail facility would further enshrine these racist practices across the region. The Stringer reports that the center held an average of 55 youths between January and September of 2016, with as few as 27 during the month of December.

Recently, musical artist Macklemore came out against the jail, as well, issuing a series a tweets in opposition to the project and stating to The Emerald, “Instead of spending over $200 million on a new jail facility, imagine if we invested in solutions that truly promote rehabilitation, like restorative justice practices, mental health services, education and job training for youth.” 

Earlier this year, a proposal for a $149.2 million police station was blocked by community activists in the Seattle. (Courtesy Seattle North Precinct Project)

Earlier this year, a proposal for a $149.2 million police station was blocked by community activists in the Seattle. (Courtesy Seattle North Precinct Project)

The proposed complex has touched off fierce debate across the city and follows the local Black Lives Matter movement’s successful fight against Seattle’s bid to construct a $149.2 million North Precinct police station designed by Portland, Oregon-based SRG Partnership. That structure would have been the country’s most expensive police facility and was resisted by an equally-vocal group of protesters who took issue with the complex’s size and architectural features. That project, dubbed “The Bunker” by community activists, was stopped earlier this year by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, who halted the station’s progress.

Related Stories