The Youth Services Center on Capitol Hill in Seattle. 
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The Youth Services Center on Capitol Hill in Seattle.
Credit: Howard S. Wright/King County

Locked-Up Kids Will Have More Options, King County Says

The county is proceeding with its plans to develop a new family justice center, despite ongoing protests.

The building includes a juvenile detention center, and that’s upset a lot of people who say we shouldn’t be locking up kids, a disproportionate number of whom are African American. Criticisms by protesters have inspired the county to try to reform the system.


Dave Chapman is helping the county plan the new family justice center. That might seem surprising when you know his back story. Chapman spent much of his childhood in juvenile detention. It began when he was abandoned as a child.

Chapman: "I did not have a home. I was a dependent and the state took me there because there wasn’t a foster home or an orphanage to take me to."


Chapman says juvenile detention is traumatic for kids.

Chapman: "You look in the mirror and wonder what’s wrong with you. And there’s a brand on you that’s with you for most of your life. 'Is there something defective in me that caused me to have this plight?'"

But Chapman believes that trauma can be reduced. And he believes the reforms announced this week will help with that.

The county promised to reduce the number of beds for locked up kids.

It also pledged $4 million for programs that offer an alternative to incarceration. For example, instead of locking up a kid who violates their probation, give them a paid internship in a county council member’s office.


And don’t lock up kids who run away from home. Instead, connect them rapidly with wraparound services.

Chapman: "Until we have other options, we have to work within the system that we have, but that doesn’t mean we can’t embrace change and innovation."

I ran the county’s reforms by Kimberly Ambrose. She teaches race and social justice as a senior lecturer at the University of Washington School of Law.

Ambrose says if the new juvenile justice center has to be built, it’s good that the county plans to make it the most progressive, supportive place it possibly can. But it’s still a cage for kids.

Ambrose says we’d get better results if we just spent the money on schools. She says young people ask her that all the time.


Ambrose: "'Can’t we take $210 million and put it into education?' Well, we can’t under the current structure. It’s a very complicated answer you have to give to a young person. ‘Well, actually, there’s a 1 percent property tax lid that has to be lifted through a levy vote…'"

But the family justice center was funded by a voter-approved levy, and the funds can’t be shifted to schools.

Ambrose: "And so, no. I’m sorry. You can’t have a better school. But we have enough money to build a facility where they can be locked up."

Ambrose says that’s a difficult message to send to kids. Construction on the justice center is expected to begin in 2016. The center is scheduled to open in 2019.

Correction 4/1/2015: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated when the new juvenile detention center will open.


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