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Commission moves ‘one small step forward’ on new youth justice building

Building a new youth justice center is not a done deal yet, but the Shelby County Board of Commissioners voted Monday to move the proposal into an initial phase of design and construction.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris was backed by a significant presence of supporters who asked the board to approve a request related to the development of a new justice center to replace the outdated Juvenile Detention Center. In the end, $1.3 million was allocated for the design and planning of Mayor Harris’ vision.

Three main components would comprise the new youth justice facility: housing, recreation, and education. The center’s design is expected to be completed over the next 6-12 months.

Several supporters of the idea of new center addressed the board, citing a need for improving education and rehabilitation components for young people in the juvenile system.

“These are not hardened criminals,” said Ian Randolph of the South Memphis Alliance. “They are still children and not adults. We can insure a lower crime rate and a lower rate of recidivism if we focus on rehabilitation.”

Deidre Malone (Photo: Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell)

Memphis Chapter NAACP President Deidre Malone, a former Shelby County commissioner and commission chair, made a more specific request.

“As a former chair of the budget committee and commission chair, I do understand funding, and I respectfully ask that you transfer money from sewer CIP to facility CIP to move this forward,” Malone said.

“I represent an organization of 100-plus years. Mayor Harris came to our meeting and talked about the deplorable

conditions of the juvenile building. We ask that the money for design and construction planning be approved today.”

Initially, two separate items were listed on the agenda pertaining to the project: the first was to approve $1.3 million, and the second proposed that the money be transferred from sewer capital improvement projects (CIP) to facility CIP to fund the design and planning.

Commissioners voted to combine the two into one proposal.

Perhaps, the most poignant appeal came from the the Rev. Charlie Caswell, who works in outreach and street ministry.

“These children have had adverse childhood experiences. It was hard to come here today. Some of you may have already seen the news. But my nephew killed himself and his child yesterday,” Caswell said.

“There was trauma early in his life, just like these kids in juvenile detention. I spent three days in juvenile detention. I came from out of the Dixie Homes projects. You may not be able to measure a return on investment, but building a new juvenile facility is important.”

A suggestion to look at existing structures, such as vacant schools, was shot down since the state has a number of requirements and codes for youth detention centers.

The measure to allocate $1.3 million for design and planning administrative fees was embraced on an 11-0 vote, with two abstentions.

Commissioners Tami Sawyer and Edmund Ford Jr. both cited concerns for approving funds for a new facility while the present system is so broken.

“I’m just not there yet,” said Sawyer. “I visited the juvenile facility recently, and yes, we need a new building, but there are concerns of understaffing and safety issues. Classes are available now, but only nine or 10 attend classes out of 100. These matters are concerning.”

Ford was concerned about the system, itself.

“A new facility won’t address the systemic change that needs to happen,” he said. “A new facility won’t address basic human and civil rights. I’d like to see more psych and emotional counseling. I agree with Commissioner Sawyer. I’m just not there yet either.”

Mayor Harris said consultants estimate that the new facility will cost $25 million, but in various phases as construction gets underway. A vote to approve the $1.3 million would be “a very small step forward,” he added.

The proposed location of the new facility is 612 Adams Avenue, adjacent to the current location at 600 Adams. Harris wants the new facility to have fewer beds than the current 135. The proposed new facility would house 80-120.

Harris proposed to use as a “place-holder name,” Youth Justice and Education Center (and/or) Facility, leaving out the word “detention.” After some debate, the majority of commissioners agree.

In other business:

The commission approved a $50 million loan for a 2,200 parking garage for the Union Row mixed-use development project. Funds will come from the Center City Revenue Finance Corp. PILOT (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes) extension funds, which has a $100 million pool.

The money will be paid back with 3 percent interest payments over a 45-year period. The garage will include public parking for the area surrounding the development site on the south side of Union Avenue, west of Danny Thomas Boulevard to Beale Street.

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