King County finalizing design for $210 million juvenile hall

SEATTLE -- The design is being finalized for a new juvenile hall in King County, but some question if the money will be well spent.

Among the concerns being raised is whether the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent would do more good offering services for troubled teenagers, instead of investing in nicer buildings.

Voters approved a $210 million property tax levy in 2012 to fund the effort. They responded to a campaign that showed how dilapidated the complex had become, with walls that seeped rain and plumbing that pumped out discolored water. The levy will pay for new courtrooms, a new detention center and space to house support services for kids in trouble.

"So you are able to make contact with public health, with behavioral health, with substance abuse, with mentoring," said King County Superior Court Judge J. Wesley Saint Clair.

The proposed redesign will move the courthouse and detention center northward, and put a parking structure to the south.

However critics say spending millions of dollars to modernize courtrooms and add more cells isn't the answer. University of Washington law professor Angelica Chazaro also opposes using vacant cells to house homeless youth.

"Nobody benefits from youth being locked up," Chazaro said. "What ends up happening are worse educational outcomes, worse health outcomes. The fact of being in a youth jail means you're more likely to end up in an adult jail."

Some of the property surrounding the complex will be converted to housing and retail projects. Neighbors support those changes but some find fault with a proposed multi-story parking garage.

"Rather than build another mammoth parking structure, we in the neighborhood are trying to encourage the county to do everything it can to increase transit to this site," said Bill Zosel, who lives nearby.

County officials say expanding bus service is being considered.

Judge Saint Clair says the county has worked hard to reduce how many youth it locks up, and is a national model for diversion programs. He believes the re-design will help his staff steer youth onto productive paths, and show the kids and their families respect and dignity while still maintaining public safety.

"I think we have the opportunity to change their directions and their outcomes," the judge said.

A construction company will be chosen among three finalists in June. Ground-breaking is scheduled to begin by the middle of next year.