In my own words: Our approach to juvenile justice reform

Dear fellow King County employee,

As you know, the wellbeing of youth, including those involved in the justice system, is one of my major priorities. As we set the stage for significant announcements and changes in the year ahead, I’d like to share my thoughts on our approach to juvenile justice reform.

Over the past year, I have articulated my vision of what the goal of zero youth detention means, and how to make it happen. Here are excerpts from three speeches so you can better understand my thinking and my values.

This is important work, ensuring that we are doing everything we can to build a holistic, trauma-informed juvenile justice system. It isn’t easy and in many ways we are breaking new ground nationally. But it’s vitally important that we come together to ensure our juvenile justice system effectively serves and supports children, youth and families, and the safety of our community.


Dow Constantine

Dow Constantine
King County Executive

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State of the County, March 20, 2017

Zero detention as a goal is an accountability measure.

It compels us to ask in each case: How can we provide justice for the victim, and protect the community from further harm, while ensuring the best chance at redemption for this young person?

Is there a disproportionate impact here, and is that about bias in the justice system, or about bias in the broader society?

And, critically, it forces us to ask: What can we do for the next generation, to ensure a different outcome?

And when I say “we” here, I am not talking just about the government.

I am talking about the entire community. Our kids are a shared responsibility. Schools and parents and neighbors and business, everybody – this is the challenge: To travel together this (sure to be arduous) journey.

I should say “the rest of the journey”, because it is a fact that King County is a recognized leader in the nation in alternatives to detention and prosecution. Our judges, prosecutor, community organizations and many others have helped King County reduce the average daily youth detention rate to among the lowest of any major jurisdiction in the nation.

And, we are one of the first major jurisdictions to simultaneously reduce the rate of detention and racial disproportionality…

To approach zero detention, we need to answer the question: How do we get to zero drop-outs or expulsions? How do we keep every kid in school? Clearly, this starts well before a child arrives at the kindergarten door, by helping families stay healthy so that children get off to the Best Start in life and arrive ready to learn and grow.

We need to work with educators and school districts to help keep students on track and prevent the problems that drive kids and their school community apart.

King County’s leaders are united in pushing forward with the best ideas in juvenile justice reform as we walk this road together.

We will not rest until we have done all we can to help the young people of our community overcome the pitfalls of youth and the burden of history.

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University of Washington, Evans School of Public Policy & Governance Convocation, June 8, 2017

Here is a fact: King County must, by state law and as a practical matter, maintain a juvenile courthouse and detention facility.

Built in 1952, the detention portion of the youth justice facility on first hill was described by The Seattle Times as “decrepit” and by a presiding judge as “disrespectful to the people who have to use it.”

That’s why, in 2012, the Seattle Times editorial board and the region’s youth advocates recommended approving Proposition 1, which raised the property tax to provide $210 million to build a new Children and Family Justice Center, or CFJC, about one-fifth of which is replacement of the detention building.

Opponents don’t want us to build the new detention building. Then we can have a big, old, crappy, polluted, oppressive, 65 year old detention building, where attorneys and families have to try to resolve difficult situations with no privacy, and into which we would have to put tens of millions of dollars to make it serviceable.

Or we can have a new, much smaller building, designed to maximize therapeutic intervention and reduce trauma for youth, and designed to be converted to other uses as we continue to reduce detention.

The CFJC will be a one-stop shop for programs and services, including education, treatment and healthcare. It will have space for volunteers and service providers. Secure detention will have at least 100 fewer beds than the current facility.

This stuff’s not easy. You have to be patient. And you have to be resilient. You have to be willing to accept blame, and forego credit. You have to be focused on the goal ahead, listening without being side-tracked by antics or threats. Just roll up your sleeves, and get to work.

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Executive Order media roundtable, Nov. 16, 2017

In recent years, we have made great strides in reforming juvenile justice.

Our prosecutors, and courts, and community partners have implemented innovative programs that emphasis rehabilitation and hope for young people.

Just two weeks ago, I signed an Executive Order to move youth charged as adults to the Youth Services Center on East Alder Street. This will allow us to offer age-appropriate programs and services to young people previously held in adult jail.

Today, I am signing another Executive Order that goes even further.

I am instructing our county departments to provide a plan that reorganizes juvenile detention services under the oversight and direction of Public Health – Seattle & King County.

By adopting a public health approach, we limit the traumatization of youth in detention. And we ensure families have access to supports and services in the community.

The average stay of youth in detention is about three weeks. Many stay for just a few days. Under a public health model, we will be better able to meet the needs of youth and families where they live, with people they trust. We will be better able to address problems before they escalate.

This approach fits hand-in-glove with my Best Starts for Kids initiative that finds the root causes of poverty and dislocation, and provides the resources for a better future.

The staff at the Youth Services Center is incredibly committed. They are patient, and they are kind, and they understand the challenges of adolescence. They have embraced the philosophy and practice of restorative justice.

By using a Public Health model, we will be able to do more. This is not just about services for youth while in detention, but changing policies and systems to keep youth from returning to detention, and avoid having contact in the justice system in the first place.

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