Shelby County mayor proposes $25M new juvenile court

MEMPHIS, Tenn. —  Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris announced a plan Monday that could be a game changer in juvenile justice.

Harris is proposing the county build a brand new juvenile justice education center to replace the current detention center. He sees the new space with a full range of social services, adequate classrooms and a functioning gym.

"I know I walked into a situation where kids aren’t getting a fair chance at rehabilitation, and I know there is a way to move that ball forward,” Harris said.

Right now, the same room at the county's Juvenile Court — built in the 1930s — functions as a classroom, gym and library all in one. Harris says it's time to replace it.

"They’re going to be be around in our community the next 50 years," Harris says of juveniles in county custody. "The best way to make sure we can cut down on the number of repeated offense is to make an investment. It will cost a pretty penny.”

By that he meant $25 million.

Harris plans to ask the County Commission for the funding on Wednesday.

Harris said once construction starts, it would take about 18 months to build.

He also said the County Commission should be able to reallocate funding without having to raise any new funds.

Commissioner Tami Sawyer says she has reservations, based on a report from the Department of Justice that states the court has not complied with making the strides they need to make.

But, she says she supports the mayor’s plan and will vote to fund it.

Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael said he completely supports the mayor's efforts to build a state-of-the-art new facility for young people awaiting trial.

"Our joint vision is a model facility for best practices providing green spaces and recreation areas; but most importantly sufficient classroom space for the teachers and administrators at Hope Academy, our Shelby County School currently located in the detention center," Michael wrote in a statement.

"The community is obligated to provide a 21st Century learning environment for the children to attend school while awaiting their day in court and a new facility will make all this possible."

In a letter released to the media on Tuesday, the plan also has the backing of Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner.

"A new education, housing and recreation facility is sorely needed and has been my most urgent priority," Sheriff's Bonner said.

"Those youth arrive traumatized and their medical and psychological needs are significant. To serve them properly, we must have more space for our gifted and passionate professionals."

To read the full letter, click here.

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