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Originally published Sunday, April 5, 2015 at 4:03 PM

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King County makes progress on youth incarceration

Given a set of shocking statistics, King County had to do something to address disparity in the juvenile justice system.

Seattle Times Editorial


While it may appear that King County is bowing to pressure from opponents of the proposed juvenile justice center, officials say that their changed approach to juvenile justice is based more on their own research and findings.

No matter the reasons, the actions are laudable.

This week, the county announced it would limit to 112 the number of beds for juveniles detained at the planned Children and Family Justice Center, a reduction by almost half those at the present Youth Services Center. Even more important are the steps the county plans to take to try to eliminate the disproportionate effect detention has on children of color.

The new youth center was approved by 55 percent of the voters in 2012. But opponents have disrupted hearings held on the $212 million proposal, shouted down those in favor of it and hurled vile names at public officials trying to do their jobs.

Hardly the civil discourse a democratic society values as a way of bringing about change, but officials do give the “street heat” credit for raising important issues.

Larry Gossett, a Metropolitan King County Council member, said that’s what “forced me to talk to my colleagues and say we gotta do better.”

Susan Craighead, presiding judge of King County Superior Court, said, “I would be naive to not credit the voices that are raising these issues.” But she said Gossett recognized that what is going on in the country — the uproar over the deaths of black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York — provided an opening to address disproportionality.

In King County, Craighead said the juvenile center has become a focal point “to deal with issues the courts have faced for a long time but felt powerless to solve.”

County Executive Dow Constantine called the center’s opposition an influence in moving the conversation forward but said its focus on detention misses the point that “what is mostly in the proposed center is meant to address how to keep juveniles from ever being held in the one-fourth of the new facility that is actually detention.”

The rest of the center will provide room for services to help find housing, health care, education, employment training and parenting classes. There will be child care services, conference rooms for community and support programs and private areas for families to meet with attorneys or talk among themselves.

In the announcement last week, county officials outlined $4 million in spending for programs to keep kids in school, provide financial and interviewing skills for seeking employment, bolster defense resources for those in the criminal justice system and expand alternatives to detention.

Constantine gives credit to Michelle Alexander for turning his attention to disparity in the justice system. He read her book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” and then urged his staff to read it.

He said the book made him aware that “although most people don’t consider themselves racists, the underlying data show that biases do exist.”

And the data on the King County justice system were “shocking,” according to Craighead. Around the time unruly protesters were gumming up the democratic process earlier this year, the court received a report on the number of juvenile police reports referred to prosecutors.

For the first time, the number of referrals in 2014 for African-American youths exceeded those for whites — by nearly 300 (1,852 for blacks and 1,553 for whites). Fewer than 10 percent of the county’s youths accounted for 43 percent of the cases referred to prosecutors.

For the county to ignore those statistics and do nothing would have been negligent, no matter the reasons.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Mark Higgins, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, Blanca Torres, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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