The Seattle City Council voted Monday to approve a zoning change allowing King County to build a new juvenile courthouse and jail at the height and width it wants to.
The vote was 8 to 1. The lone vote against the change was Councilmember Kshama Sawant. She sided with opponents of the new juvenile-justice complex who believe that children accused of crimes shouldn’t be detained.
The county needed the city’s approval for the change because the current complex and its planned replacement are in Seattle — at 12th Avenue and East Alder Street in the Central District.
The council’s land-use committee had approved the change last month despite a show of force by opponents who hoisted handmade signs with slogans like, “Education Not Incarceration.”
The opponents asked the council to use the zoning request as leverage and said the county should conduct a “racial-impact analysis” before moving the project along.
While the population of the county’s juvenile jail has dropped 69 percent since 1998, to a daily average of just 57 detainees, African-Americans are much more likely to end up there. They are only 10 percent of the county’s juveniles but 42 percent of its detainees.
County officials said they needed the zoning change immediately in order to move ahead with the project quickly, noting that the existing jail is outdated and in disrepair.
In August 2012, county voters, by about 55 to 45 percent, approved a $210 million levy to replace it with a new facility.
The opponents questioned whether the money might be better spent on programs aimed at keeping youth out of trouble.
“Incarcerating children is inhumane,” Sawant said. “Seattle spends a total of less than $5 million a year on all the jobs programs for young people combined. Imagine the impact on crime if $200 million investment was made in youth jobs.”
But county officials said voters spoke when they approved the levy.
In response to the opposition, the city and county have agreed to a joint “statement of intent” to address racial disproportionality in the juvenile-justice system and conduct a social- and racial-impact analysis as the project moves forward.
The zoning change will take effect no earlier than April 1, rather than immediately. But Monday’s vote was final.
“Everything that everybody has said about the injustices that are within the system right now is all true and there are a lot of kids that are going to continue to go through this system while we figure this stuff out,” said Councilmember Sally Clark, who voted with the majority. “They deserve a better place to do that. They deserve better programming. They deserve better options. This project can make that possible.”