The high price of juvenile justice – Part 2

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
society.

“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
quicker.”

“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.”

Gray, who has a long history working with at-risk youth, said the new center will utilize
“best practice policies for getting kids in and out and served quickly and assessing what
their real needs are.”

“We want to change the trajectory of how we’re doing things by enhancing service at the
county level for our kids and families,” Borgeson said. “A lot of details are being worked
out in terms of the internal guts of the buildings and how they’re going to look and
operate.”

Some observers express concern the new detention center will house fewer youth (68
max) than the current average detainee population of 70 to 80 and less than half the
existing capacity (144).

“It doesn’t make sense why we’re reducing capacity when the average daily population
has been steady for years and the county has not produced any projections on how
they will reduce the number of kids in detention,” community activist Brian Smith said.

“That is a valid concern,” Stennis-Williams said. “But if we’re moving towards juvenile
justice reform we should applaud reducing the number of beds – just so long as we do
not have any notion of shipping kids to other jurisdictions when we run out of bed space.
We need to address why we’re detaining the number of kids we are and what we’re
detaining them for.”

Opponents question another number – the price tag. It would be the largest capital
construction project in Douglas County government history. Funding would come
through bonds issued by the Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission and likely
require a county property tax rate increase. Mayor Jean Stothert said she wants no city
taxpayer money used for its construction.

The 501C3 formed to develop and manage the project – Douglas County Unified
Justice Center Development Corp. – is based on a model UNMC used to construct its
Buffett Cancer Center. The nonprofit would have the ability to solicit private philanthropy
to fund the project.

“We have some ideas, but we have to have a more concrete plan before private donors
will jump on board,” Borgeson said, “and that’s what we’re trying to get at.”

Critics assert a lack of transparency and due diligence in the process that created the
nonprofit, whose board is comprised of various elected and appointed officials.

“We don’t need a private corporation to head up construction. We’re perfectly capable
doing it ourselves,” Cavanaugh said. “There’s a better, cheaper, smarter way to go, and
we’re doing that right now with the 2016 public safety bond $45 million construction
project voters overwhelmingly approved after months of public hearings and
discussions. It’s refurbishing a large county office building to consolidate some county
services, including a new state-of-the-art 9/11 center, a satellite office for the Douglas
County Treasurer to serve western Douglas County and West Omaha, headquarters for
our emergency services and environmental services, plus the crime lab and sheriff’s
department spaces.

“We are also refurbishing the county correction center downtown. We’re installing in all

fire stations in the city new alert systems. All this new construction and equipment is
administered by the public property division – on time, on budget and no tax increase.”

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