Former Omaha Police Chief Thomas Warren joined a long line of people urging the Omaha City Council to green-light a proposed juvenile justice center Tuesday, while State Sen. Ernie Chambers joined Omaha Police union leaders and an equally long line of people speaking against it.
More than 40 people weighed in on the issue at a council meeting Tuesday. The occasion was a public hearing on a proposal to issue $114 million in bonds to build a courthouse annex and juvenile detention center in downtown Omaha.
It’s a Douglas County project. The Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission would issue the bonds. Douglas County property taxpayers would repay them. The County Board and building commission have voted for the project. But they need City Council approval before they can borrow the money.
The council could vote on June 18. That brought a big-game feel to Tuesday’s council meeting.
Speakers mainly battled over the juvenile detention center part of the project, which would cost $22 million after a $5 million donation from the Sherwood Foundation that comes with conditions and a pledge of $5 million more for programming if they are met.
The detention center would have a capacity for 64 youths, about half as many as the current Douglas County detention center can hold. Seventy-five to 80 young people currently are detained in the Douglas County Youth Center.
Generally, proponents contended Tuesday that building a new, smaller, less jail-like detention center next to an expanded juvenile court and adjacent to services for youths and families would streamline juvenile justice and spark further reforms. They said programming already is increasing.
Opponents contended the opposite. Generally, they said a downtown detention center would be too small and actually more jail-like than the current one, which they contend could be renovated to modern standards and include green space for recreation. They said more programming should come before buildings. Also, they want a public vote on the bonds.
Warren, president and CEO of the Urban League of Nebraska, said that as a retired Omaha police chief he is well aware that Omaha has violent juvenile offenders. That’s who the detention center is for, he said.
But there are also nonviolent youths who are locked up in detention because they lost their placements in programs or were arrested for minor offenses, and there aren’t enough services or placements for them, Warren said. Those young people should not be in a detention center, he said.
Warren said that detention numbers have declined and that a coming change in state law and the county’s commitment to juvenile justice reforms will drive them down further.
Mark Foxall, the former director of the Douglas County Jail, also supported the project. Foxall, who teaches in the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, said the discussion “needs to be about more than brick and mortar.”
The proposal brings people together from many parts of the juvenile justice system to solve problems that lead to youth detention. That’s a good thing, Foxall said.
Several proponents talked about the negative effects of detention on youths.
Deborah Neary, executive director of the nonprofit organization MENTOR Nebraska, said she had a personal experience with that. A foster child of hers was detained in the Douglas County Youth Center.
“It changed her, and not for the better,” Neary said.
But some youths need to be detained, said Anthony Conner, president of the Omaha Police Officers Association. The union opposes the detention center because 64 beds are not enough, he said. Building a detention center that small would be dangerous for police officers and the community, Conner said.
He said union leaders believe that dangerous juveniles are being released or diverted from detention to make it appear like less space is needed.
Dan Martin, chairman of the police union’s executive board and a gang unit sergeant, said he agrees that rehabilitative efforts should be in the forefront of juvenile justice but that they should be done responsibly. He cited recent cases, including the carjacking of a mother by three teenagers, in which he said some of the suspects were juveniles who had been arrested or were on probation.
Martin urged the council not to support a proposal that includes a “drastic reduction” in juvenile detention space.
Chambers said he didn’t expect to change any council members’ minds about the proposal. He said he was there to show his opposition to the juvenile detention center and to the process. A nonprofit development corporation — which includes businesses that will profit from the project — will manage its construction. Also, the bonds would be approved without a vote of the people.
“When private, powerful, wealthy men make the decisions, they’re accountable to no one,” Chambers said.
He said he will endeavor to change state law to require a public vote on large bond issues.
Greg Sechser, owner of a downtown coffee shop, said putting the Douglas County Jail downtown had gutted the surrounding neighborhood. Building the proposed detention center would gut the Flatiron neighborhood, Sechser said.
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