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Seattle-area officials want 'no locks, no cells' for juvenile offenders amid rise in teen crime

The King County Executive’s Office wants to close the juvenile detention facility by 2028. Some leaders are pushing back, with one calling the plan "preposterous."

Seattle-area leaders are eyeing a 2028 deadline for closing their youth detention center, despite a rise in youth crime.

"We know detention is causing harm, we know detention is expensive," said Celia Jackson, director of criminal legal system transformation at the King County Executive’s Office, KING 5 reported. "It is always the right time to do the right thing."

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The secure detention center in Seattle was originally set to close by 2025, a timeline that King County Executive Dow Constantine promised in July 2020 as anti-police protests took over Seattle. King County, he said, would shift "public dollars away from systems that are rooted in oppression."

The center had opened just five months earlier, a $242 million investment that Constantine had previously supported, The Seattle Times reported.

Now Constantine's office says the center won't close until at least 2028. Prosecutors worry even that deadline is too ambitious for the "no locks, no cells" approach, FOX 13 Seattle reported.

There are more than 40 teens currently detained in King County on charges including murder, robbery, assault and weapons crimes, King County Juvenile Prosecutor Ben Santos pointed out.

"I fear that they and those that walk into this facility after them will harm more people if we don't do this the right way," Santos said.

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The advisory committee Constantine tasked with ending traditional youth detention hopes to advance "anti-racist and pro-equity policies" by expanding "community-based alternatives" to jail.

Despite the county's efforts to reduce overall youth detention, the proportion of youth of color in custody has grown, according to a recent report from the committee. In the first nine months of 2023, white youth accounted for 13% of detained juveniles, while youth of color made up 87% of those in secure detention, the report states.

The committee's recommendations include creating a new "respite and receiving center" that can provide short-term housing for youth who can't go home "due to safety reasons." The committee also recommends creating a network of "community care homes" where youth who can't be released would remain while their court case proceeds.

Washington state law requires that King County operate a youth detention center, and the advisory committee's report raised some concerns about whether their proposed alternatives would comply.

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Debate over the detention center's future comes amid a spike in violent youth crime in the Seattle area.

Car theft charges against juveniles rose more than 500% last year in King County, KUOW reported. Some in law enforcement blame the "Kia Boys" TikTok trend for the increase.

Just this week, four suspects between the ages of 14 and 16 were accused of stealing a car, running red lights and crashing into a pole before taking off on foot in Renton, Washington. Police were alerted to the incident when two boys, 8 and 10, called 911 to report someone in a car threatening them with a gun.

"Juvenile crime is an epidemic. We see it almost daily," Renton Police Chief Jon Schuldt said, FOX 13 reported. "We are so lucky no one was injured in this situation, but it's only a matter of time."

King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn this week called the proposal to place "violent felons" in unlocked facilities "preposterous and a glaring danger to our communities."

"We must work to improve juvenile justice while still holding younger offenders accountable for their actions and without creating more victims out of innocent people," Dunn said in a statement.

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