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Built with 124 beds, Everett youth detention center down to 5 to 8 kids

The Daily Herald - 7/25/2022

EVERETT — Big changes could be on the way for Denney Juvenile Justice Center.

Currently, the youth jail spans about 30,000 square feet across two floors in north Everett's Delta neighborhood. Under a new proposal from Snohomish County Superior Courtleaders, it would be cut in half, leaving 15,000 square feet and 36 beds for county officials to do with what they please.

The move has the support of the county's top prosecutor and head of the public defender association.

Built 25 years ago, Denney originally had 124 beds. It never needed that many. In its first few years, there were about 75 kids there at any given time, according to a memo to the County Council. Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell remembers seeing this as a law clerk at the time.

That number only went down in the past two decades as legislative initiatives and local moves changed how the criminal justice system approaches juveniles.

A state law passed in the 1990s — known as the "Becca Bill" — allowed for the jailing of kids for skipping school or running away from home. It helped make Washington a top state for putting children in lockup, researchers found.

Judges and lawmakers have since made the system more lenient for kids. In 2018, the Legislature expanded diversion opportunities. In 2020, the state Supreme Court directed judges not to issue bench warrants for juvenile suspects.

Cornell said it's better for kids to have alternatives to incarceration, such as anger management, life skills training or behavioral health support. Studies have shown incarceration as a kid leads to higher recidivism rates.

"The more they're exposed to the carceral system, the worse their outcomes," said Kathleen Kyle, managing director of the Snohomish County Public Defender Association.

By 2010, the average daily population had dropped to 41. In 2016, it was 26. In the past few years, it has hovered around five to eight kids. The youth detention rate in Snohomish County ranks as one of the lowest in the state.

Cornell noted detention is still appropriate for kids in some circumstances. He said those currently at Denney are in custody for allegations of violent crimes or sex offenses.

Under the proposal, the remodeled detention center would be left with about 30 beds.

Superior Court Presiding Judge George Appel said in an email this is "still a good deal more than we need but it takes into account a potential increase in juvenile crime or special housing considerations."

"The change is fiscally responsible but upholds our responsibility to the community," he said.

King County's juvenile detention has seen similar reductions. In 2010, the average number of minors in detention was 89. By 2021, it was down to fewer than two dozen.

In Snohomish County, the drop has precipitated a simultaneous staffing decline. Twenty years ago, Denney had 68 custody staffers. That was cut to 39 in 2016. By last year, another seven were gone.

The planned cuts wouldn't be Denney's first. Last summer, the North Sound Behavioral Health Treatment Center opened with 32 beds: 16 for adults with both addiction and mental health issues, and the other 16 focused on people with opioid addictions. Much of the more than 20,000-square-foot facility was remodeled from the detention center and the rest was newly built. That cut capacity to 72 incarcerated children.

The Snohomish County Equity Alliance has called for the complete closure of the youth jail. In 2020, the group demanded it be converted into a community space for local kids. King County Executive Dow Constantine has pledged to close the detention center in Seattle by 2025.

The Denney remodel would cost about $1.5 million. The court plans to request money from the county in the 2023 budget.