The high price of juvenile justice – Part 1
Battle lines are drawn over cost, location of proposed youth detention center
by Leo Adam Biga
As Douglas County pushes for construction of a $120 million justice complex downtown,
conflict and controversy have emerged over greater good and expediency versus
accountability to stakeholders.
The 10-story tower courthouse annex would house a combination of county adult and
juvenile courtrooms, judges’ chambers, public defender and probation offices and
related facilities. The juvenile justice element is getting the most attention because a
four-story youth detention center containing 48 to 64 beds would connect to the annex.
Services and programs for juveniles and families would be onsite. A parking garage
would also be built.
The Douglas County Board of Commissioners is charged with approving or denying the
project. A majority of the seven-member board supports it. The project’s two vocal
opponents, commissioners Jim Cavanaugh and Mike Boyle, take issue with its scale
and location as well as the mechanism to pay for it and the private nonprofit created to
oversee it. They’ve called for a reset to halt the project to review alternatives, including
scaling it back.
Meanwhile, the county seeks to acquire a nearly century-old brick building at 420 South
18th Street, raze it and then build the complex. When owner Bob Perrin refused to sell
last summer, the county began eminent domain proceedings, only to have a court order
the county to back off pending further hearings.
“There are obstacles we’re going to have to overcome now and we’re working through
those,” said commissioner Mary Ann Borgeson, who champions the project. “I hope in
the end we’ll be able to come to a resolution. It (eminent domain) isn’t a popular thing to
do or use, but we can’t go forth really without that (building).”
Cavanaugh sees things differently.
“With the court having stopped eminent domain for now
it allows us that chance to step back and take a deep breath and look at alternatives
that exist and that will work,” he said. “We have been proposing specific alternatives,
which include construction of a juvenile justice center courthouse on land we own
adjacent to the (current) courthouse and refurbishment of the (existing) youth center on
42nd Street. We would add a courtroom facility to the youth center to allow proximity.
“Kids will have access to outdoor activities on a campus that looks more like a school
than a correctional center
with numbers significantly lower than those proposed for the $120 million project.”
There’s broad agreement the current courthouse is past capacity and long overdue for
“We have been trying to jerry-rig judges into cubbyholes and all kinds of things to try
and make this thing work without having to do what we know we needed to do 20
years ago, which was to build an annex facility,” said Ben Gray. an Omaha City Council
member who served on the city-county building commission driving the project and now
chairs the nonprofit overseeing it. “So this was not fast-tracked or anything like that.”
“It’s nothing new,” Borgeson said. “What is new is that we actually have a conceptual
plan that puts the center across the street from the existing courthouse-civic center.”
She said other locations, including the old Civic Auditorium site and MUD property, were
There’s less agreement on the need for a new detention center and how many youth it
Proponents tout the efficiencies of a one-stop shop. The current center near 42nd and
Woolworth would be replaced by the new one, thereby putting detainees in close
proximity to the justice system and to services supporting their transition back into
“Hopefully, this one-stop shop being imagined will be built based on the input of what
kids, families and community providers who work with them say they need,” said LaVon
Stennis-Williams, a county Operation Youth Success initiative committee member. Her
ReConnect Inc. serves families of current and former incarcerated. “Programs that can
keep kids from being detained are underutilized. That has to be factored in.”
She said a proposed partnership among the county, University of Nebraska Medical
Center and Creighton University to bring more psychologists and psychiatrists onsite “is
going to be a game-changer in terms of getting the assessments done on children
“Then we can look for services that will keep kids at home,” she said. “On any given
day, most of the kids detained are there awaiting placement and professional
assessment, not for their underlying offense. You’ll remove maybe two-thirds of your
population with the right professionals engaged and looking for alternatives to detention.
There are opportunities in the community to put those things in place.”