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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Kids spending longer in King County juvenile detention, audit finds

By David Gutman Seattle Times

Fewer kids are being held at King County’s juvenile detention center, but those who are there are being held for longer periods, in a facility not designed for long stays and lacking in appropriate support programs, a new auditor’s report found.

The average stay at King County’s youth detention center in Seattle’s Central District has tripled since 2017, from 12 days to 36 days, the report found, with more than 200 kids held for more than 100 days and some for over a year.

But while the longer average stay is not what officials want to see, some of the reasons behind the longer stays point to progress in the county’s goal of reducing youth incarceration. The center now almost exclusively holds children accused of serious crimes, whose cases take longer to resolve, resulting in longer stays.

Still, the new youth detention center, which opened in 2020 after years of civil rights and racial justice protests opposing its construction, was not designed for long-term stays, just for housing youth while their cases work through the judicial system.

“The support provided there does not meet the educational, enrichment, and mental health needs of youth facing long periods of detention,” the report found, noting that job training, drug treatment and behavioral therapy are not available at the facility.

“Youth in the care of King County deserve care that meets their behavioral, emotional, and enrichment needs,” King County Auditor Kymber Waltmunson said in a prepared statement.

Kids who are sentenced to further detention after their cases resolve are generally transferred to one of two state-run facilities: Echo Glen in Snoqualmie or Green Hill School in Chehalis.

The report comes as King County grapples with a long-term effort to reduce youth incarceration. The county has touted its goal of “Zero Youth Detention” for years.

County Executive Dow Constantine, in the midst of 2020’s racial justice protests, announced he would close the youth detention facility by 2025.

That deadline has since been pushed back to at least 2028, although that date appears tentative at best. An advisory committee, appointed by Constantine, failed this year to come to an agreement on how to proceed with replacing the current detention center, and whether potential replacement facilities would be secure, with locking doors.

The broad idea would be to create a short-term “respite center” for youth who can’t be sent home, and then a network of small group homes around the county for kids to stay at while their cases are adjudicated.

“The Executive is committed to creating better, more effective ways of responding to youth when they cause serious harm,” Kristin Elia, a Constantine spokesperson wrote in an email. “It is clear from the audit that the County must continue to plan for and build those alternatives while providing the best care possible for youth in custody today.”

The Metropolitan King County Council, in a hearing last month, appeared skeptical of plans to close the detention center anytime soon, despite the near universal goal of less youth incarceration.

Study after study, Councilmember Claudia Balducci said at the hearing, shows that “incarcerating youth leads to worse outcomes.”

“We’re not locking kids up for shoplifting anymore, we’re locking them up for gun violence and very dangerous activities,” she said. “I do not yet hear anybody saying anything that leads me to believe we could have a system that has no locked doors, I just don’t see it, not with the level of violence in the community right now.”

The new audit notes that closing the detention center could require both judicial approval and changes from the state Legislature.

Kids are being held for longer average stays at the detention center, the Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center, in large part because kids who would be held for shorter periods aren’t being held at all, and those who are being held have more difficult cases that take longer to resolve, the report found.

The county has been booking fewer youth into secure detention, holding only those charged with more serious crimes. It also has begun housing youth that are charged as adults at the youth detention center, rather than at adult jails, and those cases usually have longer prosecution times.

“These changes are due in part to decades of collaboration among King County’s juvenile legal system partners to provide alternatives to secure detention for youth,” Dwight Dively, the county’s chief operating officer, wrote on behalf of the county executive.

Still, the average number of kids held in secure detention has increased in the past few years, after bottoming out in 2021. The average number of kids incarcerated peaked at 62 in 2018, fell to 18 in 2021 and is 46 so far this year.

On average, about half the kids held at the youth detention center were Black, a figure about four times higher than the overall share of King County’s Black youth population.

The youth detention facility features seven housing units, each of which has individual cells (with a bed, toilet and sink) around a common area. Common areas have a TV, kitchenette, showers, rooms for phone calls and a small concrete courtyard. Each unit also has a classroom where Seattle Public Schools staff provides schooling. The detention center generally houses kids ages 14 to 18, but occasionally holds younger kids.

The report found that staffing shortages, which have afflicted all King County’s correctional facilities, have led to youth spending more time than planned alone in their cells, about 14 hours a day total.

Some kids complained that they had no access to a clock in their cell, which the report says can lead to higher risks of depression and cognitive impairment as they can’t track the passage of time.

Kids also have been going longer stretches without speaking to outside contacts, like counselors and lawyers. While most kids met with an attorney regularly, the audit found 100 instances when kids went over 30 days without meeting with an attorney.

“Several youth shared their frustration that their attorneys neither visit nor are available by phone,” the report said. “These youth shared that the lack of

information makes them feel anxious and stressed.”

The audit made 10 recommendations, including developing a plan to fill gaps in services for youth held for longer periods of time, documenting the number of youth who don’t get an attorney visit for more than 30 days, looking at housing youth charged as adults separately and making sure all youth can see a clock from their cell.

Constantine’s office said it agreed with all the recommendations, but Dively wrote the county’s general fund is “currently deeply constricted” and any recommendations requiring more staff or funding “is subject to available resources.”