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Harris gets committee-level OK for new juvenile justice facility planning funds

Now that a Shelby County Commission committee has recommended approval of $1.3 million for planning a new juvenile justice facility, the next step is consideration by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners.

The funds would be for design and construction administration services to include housing, educational and recreational components.

After Wednesday’s favorable recommendation by the Facilities, Real Property and Capital Improvements Committee, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said it is the first step in his plan to build better facilities for youth offenders.

Harris made juvenile justice reform a key part of his campaign platform.

“Shelby County has been talking about it for years, the decrepit condition of juvenile facilities that don’t put kids on the path to rehabilitation,” Harris said after the vote. “In the county building and around city hall I can find a lot of plans that are collecting dust…”

His administration is committed to “this thing through to the end,” Harris said. “And given where the county commission is right now, where juvenile justice is a top priority, I think we’re going to be able to get this done.”

Harris has said law enforcement officials have juveniles in custody an average of 25 to 30 days.

“I say the 25 days we have them we need to pour resources into them, we need to invest in them and we need to try to make sure they know they have a path forward toward rehabilitation and living a productive life,” he said. “That helps all of us.”

Commission Chairman Van Turner, who was one of the sponsors, said, “I think the new facility will allow for a better way to rehabilitate the detainees who come in contact with the juvenile justice system…

“There will be an area for assessment and then the court house and then if they are detained, the detention center,” Turner said.

Asked about funding concerns, he said that if sports betting passes for Beale Street it could provide a new source of revenue for projects such as these.

“Outside of that, I think these are what the resources are for,” he said. “I do appreciate that we have been able to pay our debt down and hats off to all of the fiscal persons that made that happen but seeing that we are strong fiscally, we can spare the monies to invest in something like this and it’s important.”

Turner said juveniles commit a lot of the crimes in this community, “so we want to make sure we’re rehabilitating our youth.”

The action comes after scathing criticism from one of the monitors from the U.S. Department of Justice. The monitor’s report noted that the juvenile justice system in Memphis still treats African-American juveniles unfairly and predicted that the practice is likely to continue unless something is done about it.

The DOJ pulled its monitors out of Memphis last year, but two monitors were asked to file reports.

The report released last year also said the court exerts inappropriate influences over defense appointments. It says children are transferred to criminal court without due process. The issues do not comply with an agreement reached in 2012.

That agreement began after an investigation showed discrimination against African-American children and unsafe confinement conditions.

Harris acknowledged that most of the juveniles who are in custody are African American. He said officials need to find out why that is so.

“Are we doing something not quite right in terms of arrest, in terms of summons, in terms of the hearings,” he asked?

He said experts have told Shelby County officials that the way defense attorneys are chosen for the juveniles is suspect. His solution is to remove that part of the process out of juvenile court and put it under the control of the county mayor’s office.

“We’ll see where it goes from here,” he said. “The county commission would have to approve this change but basically it would be the mayor hiring someone to oversee this process.”

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