The Shelby County Commission on Monday sent a $1.3 million design proposal for a new juvenile justice facility back to committee after most members determined there were still questions to be answered before proceeding with the project.
The Juvenile Justice and Education Center would include housing, educational and recreational components. The money would be used for design and construction administration services of a facility that would replace one that officials agree is rundown and in very bad condition.
Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris has said the new center is a top priority for his administration and a critical part of juvenile justice reform in the county.
“I’m still concerned about moving too quickly,” said Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer, emphasizing that “building a new building and not changing the culture” would not benefit the juveniles held there.
Commissioner Edmund Ford Jr., agreed.
“A building with no operational change equals the same old thing,” he said. “I just don’t want us to build a hotel and not (be) building better young men and women…”
The proposal was sent to the full commission from the Facilities, Real Property and Capital Improvements Committee. It is co-sponsored by Chairman Van D. Turner Jr., Commissioner Michael Whaley, Commissioner Willie Brooks and Commissioner Mark Billingsley, chairman pro tempore.
Turner voted against sending the proposal back to committee Monday.
After the vote, he said, “I still think it will pass, it just needs some more due diligence. …I think ultimately it will, that people need more comfort, and that’s not a bad thing.”
Turner said, “Most of the complaints emanate from the court system. Are the young men and women turned over to the (adult) court system unnecessarily? … The detention issue is different from the court issue. They are two separate aspects of juvenile justice.”
Sawyer said she wants to bring District Attorney General Amy Weirich, Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael and the county Public Defender’s Office to the same table in committee and ask what they think is needed to make this project a success.
Commissioner Mick Wright said there is no doubt that “this property has reached the end of its useful life.”
Billingsley said it was time for commissioners to stop “kicking the can down the road” and that the county needs to invest more in its juvenile justice programs, if it wants to curb crime and change youth’s lives for the better.
The proposal was sent back to committee on a vote of eight to four, with one abstention.
After the meeting, Sawyer said, “We are ranked dead last in opportunities for our youth in the most recent study, and that includes (the areas of) economics, healthcare, etc., and that lets me know that we are failing our kids every day. …
“Yes, I believe they deserve to be in a building that is warm, that does not have mold and that does not have drips, that will allow them to get an education and see the sun every day and really feel that they matter. But the concerns about moving a faulty system into a brand new building remain and have yet to be addressed and I don’t want to fight with people about it in the media. I want to sit down and talk about it.”
Commissioner Brandon Morrison said she thinks the juvenile assessment center, which is part of the project, is where the biggest difference will be made in terms of determining what is wrong with our youth.
The project proposal will come before the committee again on Jan. 23.