The Youth Services Center got its permit. Here’s why.

This morning the Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) released its highly-anticipated decision on King County’s permit application to build a replacement Youth Services Center (i.e. combined juvenile court and youth detention facility) in Seattle.

Despite the pleas from many activists who are opposed to a new youth detention center, SDCI approved the permit application. They had to, and therein lies a tale.

It’s hardly news that the existing juvenile court building is in sad shape; nearly six years ago it was described as “toxic, cramped and falling apart.”   At least the court building is; most believe that the attached detention center is in better shape, though the county claims that there are at least $40 million of repairs that are necessary to bring the whole center up to code. Nevertheless, in 2012 King County voters approved a $210 million property tax levy to pay for a new facility.

The existing facility is “grandfathered” in to a multi-family residential zone that generally would not allow for that sort of facility, so when it came time to start moving forward on the replacement, King County needed to ask the City Council for a change to the land use code to allow for it.

In September of 2014, that request came before the Council’s Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee, chaired at the time by Council member Mike O’Brien. The request was in the form of a specific carve-out in the land use code for

Youth service centers existing as of January 1, 2013, in public facilities operated by King County in an LR3 zone within an Urban Center and replacement, additions or expansions to such King County public facilities. For youth service centers, the development standards for institutions in Section 23.45.570 apply, and subsections 23.45.570.D and 23.45.570.F relating to structure width and setbacks may be waived or modified by the Director as a Type II decision.

(the “Director” refers to the Director of SDCI)

The development standards in Section 23.45.570 specify:

If the expansion of an existing institution meets all development standards of this Section 23.45.570, it is permitted outright. Expansions not meeting development standards may be permitted as administrative conditional uses subject to the requirements of Section 23.45.506.

The carve-out for the Youth Services Center went on to specify how SDCI should interpret requests for variances in the building code:

The Director’s decision to waive or modify standards shall be based on a finding that the waiver or modification is needed to accommodate unique programming, public service delivery, or structural needs of the facility… The Director’s decision shall include conditions to mitigate all substantial impacts caused by such a waiver or modification.

It also gave some specific guidance for street frontage, pedestrian environment, and bulk and scale of the building.

In short: the Council’s proposed ordinance required that SDCI only look at whether the project meets development standards, with waivers as necessary to meet the unique needs of the building. If it meets the standards, SDCI must approve the permit application.

Even before the Black Lives Matter movement, creating a new youth detention facility was controversial. There is an abundance of research showing that youth detention drives poor outcomes. Further, there is a huge racial disparity within the youth detention system, where black kids are over-represented not only in the general population but even within the population of youth offenders (i.e. fewer white offenders are placed into the system because they are offered alternatives to incarceration more than black kids are).  So when the issue came before the Council in 2014, activists made clear that they saw continuing to build youth detention centers as a perpetuation of the “prison industrial complex” and the disparate racial outcomes it drives.

This point was not lost on King County and City of Seattle officials. In fact, they were already partnering on several programs to reduce youth detention by offering alternatives. By 2014, they had reduced the average number of persons in the Youth Detention Center on any given night from 100 a few years earlier to about 60.  In fact, the city has an Action Plan for reducing youth detention to zero, and is partnering with the Social Justice Fund on programs to that end.

Where this gets tricky is that as much as we’d like, the number can’t be brought down to zero overnight; for the foreseeable future, there will still be a need to lock up some (hopefully very small) number of violent youth offenders. The State mandates that King County build and maintain a youth detention facility, though it also requires those facilities to provide a “humane, safe and rehabilitative environment.” The current facility has 212 detention beds; the proposed new one has only 112. Activists argue that any number of beds is too many if the system that pushes kids into the youth detention system has disparate racial impacts and negative outcomes for those incarcerated. The new facility also would have several other features in support of a number of the programs that are alternatives to detention, but the question still remains: don’t we still need to have a youth detention facility of some size that is safe, humane and rehabilitative?

After a protracted discussion in committee and in the Full Council meeting, the land use code change passed by an 8-1 vote (with Sawant the only no vote, saying “incarcerating children is inhumane”), but with an accompanying agreement between the City of Seattle and King County to  complete a full racial and social equity assessment of the proposed facility and to partner on additional alternative programs.

Well, the racial and social equity assessment never happened; in March of 2015 the King County Executive issued a report that danced around the issue, re-framing it around investing in alternatives to youth detention. in September of last year, the City Council approved a resolution “endorsing a vision for The City of Seattle to become a city with zero use of detention for youth.” Nevertheless, King County moved forward with the design work for the new Youth Services Center, culminating in its permit application.

This morning SDCI followed the law as dictated by the Council two years ago, and approved the permit application. It granted a few variances in the existing development standards, most notable allowing a building that is greater than 150 feet in length because of the need to physically connect the courthouse and detention center — a unique requirement of the use of the building.  In advance of SDCI publishing that decision, Mayor Ed Murray issued a statement reinforcing that SDCI and the Mayor must comply with the written law in evaluating the permit application and conveniently ignoring the fact that he signed into law the ordinance changing the land use code two years ago; for better or worse, he is as complicit as the Council in today’s outcome.

This afternoon, after SDCI released its approval for the permit, O’Brien issued a statement of his own:

“Mounting evidence reinforces what communities of color have been telling us for years: jailing youth perpetuates a vicious cycle of violence, makes detainees more likely to re-offend, and disproportionately impacts people of color, particularly black youth. It is unfortunate that the permit application submitted by the County, with plans for 112 detention beds, seems to be inconsistent with the City Council’s vision for a city with zero use of youth detention, and the County’s stated intention to ‘fight for a world where detention for young people is no longer needed.’ While SDCI has given their technical approval of the plans from a land use perspective, I urge the County to go back to the drawing board to reflect community voices and the commitments we share towards ending youth incarceration.”

I spoke with O’Brien by phone this afternoon, and he expanded on his statement. He doesn’t fault SDCI for approving the permit today, and recognizes that was the outcome dictated by the Council’s ordinance in 2014. But in the last two years, he has had a change of heart. “If I were the chair of the land use committee and this came before me today, I would act differently,” he said.

First, he explained, the national reports of high-profile killings of black men and youth, some by police, as well as increased public attention to the way the criminal justice system drives disparate impacts, has left a strong impression on him. “Two years ago I didn’t understand as I do today how that system is failing kids.”

In addition, O’Brien believes that our society is “at a moment of significant reflection and of significant pivoting.” He now sees wide recognition that the existing criminal justice systems are failing, and believes that a few years from now we will think differently about the systems and programs we want to have in place.

“The challenge is not about the number of beds and the existing configuration,” O’Brien says. It’s about what we should be doing right now.” If he is right that we will soon desire other kinds of programs and facilities to support them, he argues “… that’s not the best time to put a couple of hundred million dollars to invest in a piece of infrastructure that won’t give us the flexibility we need a couple of years from now.”

However, he doesn’t necessarily believe that the status quo is acceptable. “I think there is a distinction to be made between the courthouse and the jail. If people feel the courthouse needs immediate work, we should spin that off as a separate project. If someone asked if there were things we could do to get ten more years out of this building, I think it would make a lot of sense.”

In the meantime, the County has its permit, pending any appeals to the Hearing Examiner — which are more likely than not.