LINCOLN — State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha may run for the Douglas County Board to fight plans for building what he calls a “youth prison” downtown.
Chambers said Wednesday that he is looking at the possibility as a way to bring attention to a controversial juvenile detention center proposal.
“I do not relish the notion of serving in a local governmental position,” he said, “but if that is the only way to bring about changes, I’ve got to give it consideration.”
Board members voted last month to ask the Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission to issue $114 million worth of bonds to build a courthouse annex and juvenile detention center.
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The building commission could take up the new request in May. If the commission votes yes, the measure would still need additional approvals from the Omaha City Council and the Douglas County Board. In January, the building commission denied the board’s request for $120 million in bonds.
Chambers opposes plans to move the Douglas County Youth Center from its current location at 42nd and Pacific Streets, particularly to a downtown location.
He said he has concerns that officials are looking to build a new center without changing their philosophy about dealing with juvenile offenders. He pointed to the vastly disproportionate number of black youngsters locked up currently.
He also said the County Board should get voter approval before issuing the bonds. While no vote is required under state law, he said the board would seek a vote if they “had proper respect for the public.”
Chambers, who will be 82 in July, will be term limited out of the Legislature in 2020. If he ran for the County Board that year, he most likely would be running against Chris Rodgers, a supporter of the downtown detention center project.
“If it were not an important principle, I would not even consider running,” Chambers said. “I will not say I will run, but I will not dismiss the possibility.”
Rodgers said he has heard that Chambers’ “facts are totally wrong” and that the senator “has been listening to the wrong people.”
“We’re both elected officials,” Rodgers said. “I have mutual respect for him. ... I respect him, but I’m not afraid of him.”
Rodgers said he and other Douglas County officials have worked with state legislators and state juvenile probation officials and others to reduce the number of youths in detention and how long they are detained, in part by increasing alternatives to detention, and to solve the chronic problem of a disproportionate number of black youths in the criminal justice system.
“His (Chambers’) concern for black youths, for youths of color, in detention is no greater than mine, and I’ve been working on this for 14 years,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers said the courthouse annex part of the proposed project is about addressing a space shortage in the Douglas County Courthouse. He said the point of building a new juvenile detention center on the same site is to make juvenile justice work better for families and children.
“I’m doing this because I believe wholeheartedly, in my heart and mind, that this is best for the families and kids of Douglas County,” Rodgers said.
Once over 200, the number of youths detained in the Douglas County Youth Center has dropped to about 80 in recent years. The capacity of the current youth center is 96, whereas it used to be 144, Rodgers noted.
Current plans call for building a center with room to hold 64 youths. The county originally proposed to build a 48-bed facility, with space to expand to 64 beds if necessary.
Proponents have said coming changes in state law and anticipated new placement programs will reduce the number of juveniles in detention, and thus require less juvenile detention space.
World-Herald staff writer Christopher Burbach contributed to this report.
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