People at a meeting in north Omaha on Thursday night told two Douglas County Board members pressing for a new downtown juvenile justice center that they want more community involvement in juvenile justice services and reform.

The Rev. Portia Cavitt invited County Board members Chris Rodgers and Mary Ann Borgeson to talk about the juvenile justice system, its needs and shortcomings at Clair Memorial United Methodist Church. About 50 people attended.

The two are the leading proponents of a $120 million proposal to build a courthouse annex and youth detention center at 18th and Harney Streets. That topic has grabbed headlines for months. But it was a subordinate item Thursday.

Cavitt said she is less concerned with the proposed building than with services for youths and families.

“I want to know, why aren’t we meeting the needs of these young people?” Cavitt asked. “What are the services that will be housed in the buildings? There’s still a whole lot that has not been determined, and the commissioners ought to be open to hearing from the community.”

Rodgers and Borgeson talked about past efforts to reduce the number of young people in detention, to shorten their stays and to provide an alternative to locking them up. Rodgers said that effort goes back 10 years and that the justice center proposal grew out of that.

He and Borgeson said they are working on more reforms. They noted a proposed county program with the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the Charles Drew Health Center to increase psychiatric services for young people in detention.

Rodney Evans, who runs the nonprofit Metro Area Youth Services, said his agency is officially recognized as an alternative to detention. But he said few young people are referred to the agency .

Evans said his program has never reached its capacity of 15 young people.

“The current organizations that are trying to do what’s best for the community and the families and children we serve are underutilized,” Evans said.

How are new buildings going to help with that, especially if the justice center is a “one-stop shop?” he asked.

LaVon Stennis, who runs a youth services program called Triage, echoed Evans’ concerns. She said her support for the justice center is contingent on the county including families and community leaders more.

“I am 100 percent behind using community organizations,” Borgeson said.

Stennis said the county needs a formal process for receiving community and family input before creating new programs or buildings, or it will repeat “the mistakes of the past.”

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Chris Burbach covers the Douglas County Board, Planning Board and other local government bodies, as well as local neighborhood issues. Follow him on Twitter @chrisburbach. Phone: 402-444-1057.

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