Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris details the need for "vigorous conversation" about juvenile detention in Shelby County. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley)

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris waged a full-court press for support of his newly proposed Juvenile Justice Education Center at this year’s first meeting of the Memphis Branch  NAACP on Thursday evening. It worked.

President Deidre Malone asked for a motion and second right there on the spot for the local organization to stand with Harris Monday as the Shelby County Board of Commissioners reconsiders first-step funding.

Harris has been very vocal about the need to make significant changes in the juvenile court operation so as to better serve and support the area’s youth .

Noting that he had been in office for 150 days, Harris said a “vigorous conversation” is needed concerning juvenile detention in Shelby County.

“Young people who commit low-level offenses — being caught with cigarettes, vandalism, small amount of drugs — should not be put in the system at all. There are 4,000 of these kids who receive criminal summons to appear in court. They shouldn’t be detained.”

Youngsters who have committed more serious offenses spend an average of 24 days. That is enough time to create a career criminal, Harris said.

“There are 100 kids who have committed more serious crimes. They are locked up with no place for recreation, not many classes to continue their education, and no windows. They have a concrete slab and basketball goals with no rims on them. But we must invest in them now. If we don’t intervene in the lives of these young people, they will go back and forth year after year.

“Clearly, these children have experienced some type of trauma. An assessment center can get them the help they need. There is very little rehabilitation in this present system.       They need to know that there are opportunities open to them.”

In the next few weeks, a youth assessment center will open on the campus of University of Tennessee. Shelby County Commissioners have approved directing $500,000 to the pilot program.

Harris envisions a new juvenile assessment center projected to cost about $25 million. On Monday, the full commission takes a third run at a proposal calling for the approval of funds for the planning and design of a new juvenile detention facility. On two previous occasions, the proposal was sent back to committee after commission members voiced concern.

Shelby County Commission Chairman Van Turner was in attendance at Thursday’s Memphis Branch NAACP meeting..

“Chairman Turner, can you tell us why Mayor Harris’ proposal has not been approved? Is it the money?” Malone asked.

Turner, who has given the mayor his full support on the new center, said that he thinks the hold up is, in part, associated with concerns related to oversight. The U.S. Dept. of Justice, which began oversight of Juvenile Court after a highly critical report in 2012, recently withdrew that involvement. Subsequent reports from monitors have noted ongoing concerns. Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael has taken issue with the monitor reports.

“What can we do to help?” Malone asked Mayor Harris.

“Well, you can show up on Monday at the 3:30 meeting (of the Shelby County Commission) and express your support,” Harris answered.

Malone asked for a motion and second immediately, a voice vote was taken, and chapter members agreed fill county commission chambers Monday afternoon.

“The NAACP wants Shelby County to move forward with the facility,” said Malone. We are supportive as a body. People say, ‘Where is the NAACP?’ Well, we are right here.”

In other business, Memphis Branch NAACP executive committee members for 2019 were sworn in by City Court Judge Tarik Sugarmon.

Tennessee House Minority Leader Karen Camper (D-87) and the first African-American leader of the Democrats gave brief remarks.

Thursday’s meeting was held at historic Mt. Olive CME Church. Bishop Henry Williamson of the 1st Episcopal District opened with prayer and remarks. The organization’s next meeting is scheduled for February 28.