February 2012 Bar Bulletin
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February 2012 Bar Bulletin

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If at First You Don't Succeed ...

By Joe Bringman


Time To Try Again To Build New Children and Family Justice Center

"Important as it is that people should get justice, it is even more important that they should be made to feel and see that they are getting it."
— Lord Chancellor Farrer Herschell

Have you been to King County's Youth Services Center (YSC) at 12th and East Alder lately? If not, visiting could be a shock. The place is just about falling apart. Something must be done. Soon.

The Youth Services Center

The YSC is a three-building campus that houses Juvenile Court, Juvenile Court Services and the Juvenile Detention Center. It also provides space for the juvenile divisions of the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office and the Department of Judicial Administration.

Juvenile Court handles criminal and family law cases involving persons under 18. In criminal cases, the prosecuting attorney charges that a youth committed an "offense" — behavior that would constitute a "crime" if engaged in by an adult. (There are specified felonies for which youths must be charged as an adult; Superior Court handles those cases.) Juvenile Court also handles traffic infractions (such as speeding) and civil infractions (such as underage smoking) charged against persons younger than 16.

Family law cases fall into two categories. Becca hearings involve youths who violate truancy laws or are classified as "at-risk youth" (runaways and others whose parents or legal guardians seek judicial help to maintain the care, custody and control of the child) or as "children in need of services" (youths removed from the family home and temporarily placed elsewhere due to serious conflict with their parent(s), but with the ultimate goal of reunifying the family).

Dependency cases involve children who have been removed from their homes due to abandonment, abuse, neglect or absence of a parent, guardian or custodian able to provide adequate care, and placed in alternative living arrangements until the court determines either that the situation requiring removal has been remedied or that termination of parental rights is necessary.

Juvenile Court Services encompasses, among other things:

  • Probation Services, which conducts risk and needs assessments for youths placed in detention, makes recommendations to the court regarding release, sentencing and sanctions for violating court orders, and supervises youth released on probation;
  • Juvenile Services, which oversees and coordinates court resources for youths in the Becca and dependency programs, and oversees offenders who are "diverted" from Juvenile Court into community-based accountability programs; and
  • Juvenile Justice Grants, which operates programs that provide community-based intervention services (such as employment training, placement services and liaison services with health and school systems) to help juvenile offenders satisfy restitution obligations and avoid future justice system involvement.

The Juvenile Detention Center houses youths charged with committing an offense after an arrest, while trial is pending, while serving a sentence or as a sanction for violating probation. Non-offenders (truants, at-risk youth, children in need of services or dependents) who violate a court order or are arrested on a warrant also may be placed in detention. Because the goal of detention is rehabilitation, all detained youths attend classes and have access to a library and recreational opportunities, and are assessed for medical and mental health needs.

Physical Deterioration of the YSC

The YSC's two oldest buildings, the Alder Wing and Tower, house Juvenile Court and Juvenile Court Services. They are between 40 and 60 years old, were not built with current use levels in mind, and many of their critical systems have exceeded their useful life. Judges long have complained that the court facilities are too small, don't meet security needs and have substandard plumbing, heating and air conditioning.

Finding usable water at Juvenile Court can be a challenge. Over half of its floors lack hot water due to leaking pipes. If you want cold water, be prepared for it to run brown — even from drinking fountains — due to rusty pipes.

The heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems don't work on the upper floors. This can be intolerable for people working or attending court on hot summer days. Temperatures on those floors have been known to reach the mid-90s.

The lower floors are susceptible to flooding. A water main break in September 2010 caused Juvenile Court to close for two days. And a rainstorm in 2006 led to mold and other moisture-related problems that still persist, despite millions of dollars spent to alleviate them.

Elevator malfunctions are a near-daily occurrence. This is more than a nuisance; it can present a denial of access to justice — or to one's job — for persons with physical limitations.

There's a health issue, too. In August 2010, four (of seven) courtrooms were shut down after the discovery of PCBs — industrial compounds that are known health hazards and have been banned in the United States since the late 1970s — in window caulking, carpeting and soil samples. As a consequence, all Becca hearings and dependency cases (and related court personnel) moved downtown while treatment took place to prevent long-term PCB exposure. It wasn't until late August last year that those courtrooms reopened for Becca hearings. Dependency cases remain at the King County Courthouse.

Lest remediation of the PCB contamination make it sound like all health issues are resolved, asbestos precludes use of other parts of the facility. And, as already noted, there's an ongoing battle with mold. Some floors also enjoy a stench rising from old sewer pipes.

As nasty as Juvenile Court's space is, there isn't enough of it. Although the four original courtrooms were reconfigured into seven, this is not adequate to meet current, let alone projected, needs. The small size of the courtrooms poses an additional concern because juvenile proceedings are open to the public.

But the courtrooms aren't the only deficient areas. Many staff work in tiny offices that once served as cells, many near the sewer pipes that foul the air. And there's virtually no place where attorneys and caseworkers can meet privately with clients. Instead, they have to talk with their clients in a crowded lobby, often within earshot of small children — even when discussing sensitive subjects like mental health and sexual abuse. Client confidentiality in this setting is a pipedream.

No Fix So Far

The County has spent millions to address Juvenile Court's most pressing problems. A complete renovation likely would cost another $250 million. At that price, it makes sense to build a new facility — something on which all three branches of county government agree. Nevertheless, the prolonged economic downturn has made it infeasible so far to go forward.

The County tried to raise funding in 2010 via Proposition 1, which would have increased the local sales tax by 2 cents on every $10 spent. A portion of this tax hike would have been directed to replacing the Alder Wing and Tower with a new Children and Family Justice Center. Despite support by the courts, sheriff, prosecutors and KCBA, Proposition 1 lost at the polls.

During the past year, King County representatives considered other alternatives, including construction of a Children and Family Justice Center at a different location (which would have required building a new juvenile detention facility at the same site). However, only one location looked promising — the old PacMed Building on Beacon Hill — and local opposition put the kibosh on those plans.

Where Do We Go From Here?

A new Children and Family Justice Center remains a priority for the County Council, the County Executive and the Superior Court. And it should be.

As Chancellor Herschell observed, the appearance of receiving justice is as important as obtaining justice.1 Our judicial system is daunting enough for people facing criminal or family law issues; even more so for young people — whether they're at court on a minor criminal matter or because they need protection from bad family situations.

Subjecting them to conditions like those at Juvenile Court is no way to make them feel that the justice system is meant to serve them and give them a fair shake. And, because most youths who come into contact with Juvenile Court are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, subjecting them to such conditions can only give them (and their families) the subliminal message that society doesn't much value them.

Erecting a new Children and Family Justice Center would do more than improve conditions for those who use and provide services at the YSC. It would allow Superior Court to carry out long-held plans to unify all juvenile and family law matters for north King County at a single location. (Currently, dependency cases and other family law matters in north King County that involve children — including divorces, legal separations, paternity, child support and domestic violence actions — are handled at the King County Courthouse.)

This would reduce confusion about where to go for court services. More important, it would enable a single judge to oversee all juvenile and family court matters that involve the same family, resulting in more efficient and effective provision of court services through a comprehensive, systemic approach to cases that affect youths and their families.

But how do we get there? One way, of course, would be for the County to continue searching for new properties on which it could locate a Children and Family Justice Center. Last year's experience with the PacMed Building, however, shows that any effort to place such a center in or near a new residential area will face community opposition. Opponents will urge fellow residents to keep a "jail" out of their neighborhood, ignoring the fact that a youth detention center is not a jail.

Relocation poses a second challenge. Most youths who enter the juvenile justice system, on both the criminal and family law sides, are from less affluent parts of the county. Not all of their families own a car, and those who do may not easily be able to pay $4 or more per hour to park. Because we hope and expect that families will be part of the solution when their sons, daughters or other young relations enter the justice system, any new location must be convenient, must have free or subsidized parking, and must be served by public transit.

Perhaps by default, the best solution may be to leave the Detention Center (which is in decent physical shape) where it is, tear down the other YSC buildings, and erect a Children and Family Justice Center in their place. But even this will require another try at the polls to raise financing — either a tax increase or a bond sale. I anticipate that the Executive, the Council and the courts will lead such an effort. I fully expect that KCBA again will support them.

It's not too early to get behind the County's campaign to raise funds to build a new Children and Family Justice Center. If anything, we're already years behind. I urge you to support these upcoming efforts and to encourage your family members, colleagues, friends and neighbors to do the same.

Unless we can provide a decent facility in which to address the legal needs and problems that confront our youth and their families, how can we send the message to them that the juvenile justice system in King County is not broken, and that they are as important and worthwhile as anyone else who comes into the justice system?

KCBA President Joe Bringman is of counsel to Perkins Coie LLP, where he practices in the Commercial Litigation Group. You can contact Bringman at jbringman@perkinscoie.com.

1 Chancellor Herschell's sentiment has been echoed in this country as well. See, e.g., Offutt v. United States, 348 U.S. 11, 14 (1954) ("justice must satisfy the appearance of justice"); Pfizer, Inc. v. Lord, 456 F.2d 532, 544 (8th Cir.) ("It is important that the litigant not only actually receive justice, but that he believe that he has received justice."), cert. denied, 406 U.S. 976 (1972); 139 Cong. Rec. 29,579 (1993) (statement of Sen. Cohen) ("The appearance of justice is just as important as justice itself, in terms of maintaining public confidence in our judicial system.").


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