KUOW Got the Facts about the Jail Wrong, Here We Clear It Up

Debunking the “Fact Check”

By Devon Knowles and Nikkita Oliver

On May 7th, after interviews with both Dow Constantine and Nikkita Oliver, KUOW published an “fact check” entitled Why Does Seattle Need a New Youth Jail?” In responding to the arguments made by Oliver against the youth jail, KUOW staff relied heavily on uncited comments by County employees. These statements cannot and should not be considered “facts” about the youth jail or King County’s approach to supporting systems-involved youth and communities. Although KUOW later published Oliver’s tweets in response to their conclusions, we believe it is essential to fully respond to the commentary.

KUOW “fact” #1:

If we did not have this youth detention facility, the only other options for violent offenders would be King County jail or the Norm Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, where we have historically housed juveniles charged as adults.

The real facts:

The above statement presumes some children need to be locked up. The options are not either to lock up kids in a youth facility or lock them up in an adult facility. The third option is to not use jail as an option for kids, and instead to rely on the alternative programs already in place and develop more alternatives. While RCW 13.16.030 which makes juvenile detention facilities a mandatory function of the county, it does not specify that the center must be a jail or how many children need to be detained. The County has the ability to interpret the statute and is actively choosing to build a multi-million dollar youth jail.

Also, it is not true that if we did not “have this youth detention facility,” we would rely on adult facilities as a youth jail already exists at 12th and Alder. In fact, while the County points to the need to keep children out of adult jails, it is seeking to build a facility that even its own experts describe as troubling. Specifically, “the incorporation of mezzanines (pods) reminiscent of adult-correctional facilities totaling a large bed count (112) runs contrary to best practices.” \

KUOW “fact” #2:

Patricia Murphy: The project budget adopted by the King County Council is $219.2 million, according to Alex Fryer, a spokesperson for King County. Fryer also says the $638 million figure is incorrect. He says the county spent $359 million in 2017 through the Department of Juvenile and Adult Detention, prosecuting attorney’s office and other agencies.

According to the county’s March 2018 report, average daily population in secure juvenile detention was 53, down from 90 ten years ago. The average stay in secure juvenile detention was around 11 days in 2017.

According to King County’s website, the number of detention beds at the new facility is capped at 112, which is down from 212 beds available. Many of those beds may go empty. Most kids charged with crimes are not in detention but in diversion programs.

The real facts:

The County adopted $638 million for policing and prosecution (targeting communities of color) in the 2017-2018 Biennial budget. In spending $359 million in 2017 alone, the County is already on track to exceed that budget.

KUOW did not provide a link to the March 2018 report and there is no citation supporting the County’s claim that more youth end up in diversion programs than in detention. What we do know is that, while the number of children incarcerated is decreasing, racial disproportionality is increasing. This suggests it is primarily white children who are given the opportunity to participate in diversion programs, while youth of color remain incarcerated.

Moreover, the County’s aim to build a detention center that will hold twice as many children belies its stated commitment to zero youth detention. If the additional beds are to account for the County’s population growth over the next 50 years, we can only assume that the County intends to continue locking kids up for decades to come.

Finally, the County should be ashamed in touting the average detention period of 11 days. Doctors, children’s advocacy groups, and juvenile justice policy organizations have repeatedly concluded that any amount of incarceration results compromises a child’s mental, emotional, and physical health, and that even less than one month in jail results in negative health outcomes as adults. See, e.g., https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5260153/; http://www.justicepolicy.org/images/upload/06-11_rep_dangersofdetention_jj.pdf

KUOW “facts” #3 and #4:

Patricia Murphy: The report Oliver references is from a facility inspection in 2011. It does describe the facility as in “generally good condition,” but it also describes water penetrating through concrete block walls and leaking through window frames. The number Oliver mentions is the total project cost for addressing issues in the exterior and HVAC.

Constantine told Bill Radke it would cost more to remodel the old facility than to build a new, smaller facility that can reduce its secure detention facility over time. The County estimates repairs would cost $40 million.

The real facts:

The new facility cannot be a healthy place for children to live or to receive services. Children will be separated from their families, will have their education disrupted, and will experience trauma in this facility.

The current jail is not a safe place, but it does not follow that the County needs to spend $220 million building a designer jail. KUOW does not provide a citation for the County’s claim that repairing the existing facility would cost $40 million. Even assuming repairs would cost $40 million, however, the County’s statement that “it would cost more to remodel the old facility than to build a new, smaller facility” is utterly nonsensical. The new facility is slated to cost at least $219 million dollars – a difference of $180 million.  

KUOW “fact” #5:

Patricia Murphy: I have heard criticism that services are in the wrong place. Less than 25 percent of referrals to detention come from Seattle; most come from South King County (e.g. Tukwila, Federal Way and Auburn). Some families have to travel significant distances to participate and that can be a huge strain. Constantine told Bill Radke you can scatter the diversion programs but not the courts.

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg told me that regional services are a great idea but at least a decade away.

The real facts:

Constantine’s answer confuses services with courthouses. We do not need to decentralize courts in order to decentralize services. Dan Satterberg provides no citation or reasoning for his statement that regional services are at least a decade away. The truth is likely a matter of funding, in which case we need to be spending the $219 million towards achieving this goal of truly supporting youth.

KUOW “fact” #6:

King County has made significant investments in trying to keep kids out of jails.

For example, $62.6 million in the Best Starts for Kids in 2017. But what they do not have yet is critical mass, meaning they don’t have enough people doing enough of the work yet. A lot of that isn’t about a lack of willingness. It usually comes down to funding, training and even liability concerns.

The real facts:

The County dedicates far more resources towards traditional policing, prosecution, and detention than it does to any types of diversion programs or therapeutic courts. The adopted 2017-2018 budget reflects that the County allocated about $22 million to “therapeutic courts” (mental health court, family treatment court, and drug courts), totalling approximately $11 million per year.  

Similarly, it appears as though the County is spending significantly less resources towards diversion programs, instead relying on outside funding or requiring families who participate to pay fees. The budget’s specific allocation for juvenile diversion programs is limited to the Family Intervention and Restorative Services (FIRS) program and accounts for $1.3 million over the course of two years (although the budget does add one full-time position (FTE) for diversion and reentry programs as part of the behavioral health budget and $200,000 to the prosecutor’s office, it is unclear how much of this will be allocated towards juvenile diversion). It is worthwhile to note that the County funds 892 FTEs for adult and juvenile detention alone (not including policing or prosecution).   

The County claims that they are not able to invest in programs to keep children out of jail because of “funding, training and liability concerns.” This is telling. Although the proposed project is funded by a levy, the reality is that the County does not have the funding because it chooses not to – it chooses to invest in policing, prosecution, and jailing, not in youth or communities.

The question of funding is a critical one and again reflects the County’s values. As it stands, the Washington Court of Appeals has ruled that the language on the ballot precludes collecting funds beyond the first year, leaving the County with at least a $150 million deficit. Although the Washington Supreme Court has accepted review, it is unlikely to issue a decision within the next six months. In the event that it affirms the Court of Appeals ruling, the County will be required to draw from the general fund to make up the difference. The choice to proceed pending a decision is extremely reckless and dangerous given the County’s severe housing crises and depleted general fund.