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King County Announces Plan For 'Zero Youth Detention' As New Jail Construction Continues

Paula Wissel

King County has released a new report outlining how it plans to eventually stop locking up kids when they get in trouble. Officials have also announced a proposed $4 million investment in making that happen.

County Executive Dow Constantine first made "Zero Youth Detention" a policy goal during his 2017 State of the County address. Since then, the county has included the public health department in its youth detention plans and has moved all juveniles out of adult detention.

Now the county has released "The Road Map to Zero Youth Detention." In addition to outlining strategies to keep kids out of lockup, the report also enumerates why it's worth taking a different approach to kids who get in trouble.

The data are clear: Kids who come in contact with the legal system have worse outcomes as adults. Those kids also tend to be disproportionately black and brown. All of this can then have adverse effects on communities.

At a press event announcing the new report, Maryem Weini, 17, summed it up this way: "There's no need for them to be sitting behind [bars] messing up their whole life over some petty stuff."

Instead of locking kids up, the county wants to divert them from the formal legal system to find other ways of solving conflict. That could include using restorative justice practices, like peacemaking circles, as an alternative.

The report also calls for providing better services for kids who are already in detention.

Another focus is prevention. In order to provide better support systems for kids who are struggling,  the county will have to go beyond courts and its own government processes to work with entities like schools.

The task is a daunting one for a county with multiple school districts with their own disciplinary practices. Highline Superintendent Susan Enfield says it's worth it.

"This is about all of us sort of getting past turf, getting past power, and coming together and doing business differently. If we keep doing it the way we've been doing it -- alone, in silos, what have you -- our kids are going to lose, and our communities are going to continue paying the price," she said.

Constantine says he plans on including $4 million in his 2019-2020 budget proposal for various initiatives called for in the report.

The money will go toward community organizations already doing this work, providing mental health services to kids before they enter the legal system, alternative resolution programs, and improvements to the current juvenile detention system. It will also pay for a team to manage the Zero Youth Detention initiative.

The County Council is expected to deliberate and vote on a spending plan this fall.

King County's announcement comes as construction continues on a highly controversial new youth detention center. 

Anti-incarceration activists have been vocally opposing the plan since 2012, when voters approved a levy to fund the new jail's construction.

Since then, opponents have held visible protests blocking traffic and construction. They've even had mixed results in the courts over whether the levy has been properly collected, a question that could have big consequences and is expected to be tackled by the state Supreme Court.

King County Cheif Juvenile Prosecutor Jimmy Hung gave some credit to activists, saying they've pushed the county to seriously think about how to stop locking up youth. But he also said the new building is still important.

"I want families, when they walk into the building, to be like 'Hey, our leaders are investing in us,' and it's not just like [it's] some throwaway building that they're putting us in," Hung said.

A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.