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Commission moves forward with funding for new $25 million juvenile justice center

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Shelby County Commissioners approved the first step in funding a new juvenile justice center during committee meetings Wednesday.

With a vote of 11 in favor and one abstaining, the commissioners allocated $1.3 million toward the construction of the new building. The money came from funding previously slotted for a new county sewer system. Mayor Lee Harris dropped those plans in December.

Mayor Lee Harris is making juvenile justice reform a clear priority in the new year, with both procedural and physical updates in the plans.

He says the current building has rooms that double as classrooms and gyms.

Commissioners said they’d toured it recently and gave a grim report about the conditions.

“It was depressing," Commissioner Reginald Milton said of the leaky roof and peeling paint.

Officials also said the building does not have enough space for therapy and educational needs.

"For the 25 days we have custody of them, we need to pour resources into them and let them know they have a path forward to rehabilitation and returning into our communities and living productive lives. That helps all of us," Harris said.

The commission also went over grim realities about the way juvenile justice functions in Shelby County; a federal expert said it’s not fair to the kids in the system and too many get charged as adults.

"The numbers do speak for themselves. Shelby County’s transfer rate is so, so far different from everyone else in the state," the federal monitor said.

She also talked about flaws in the way lawyers are chosen for children.

Commissioner Van Turner says he also wants to fix these issues as they also begin to build the new center.

“If there’s room to play and greenery but still issues with due process then a new facility doesn’t make a difference,” Turner said.

Commissioners also asked if the new building would have space for children under 18 who are going to be tried as adults.

Right now, the county doesn’t have adequate space for them.

Commissioner Tami Sawyer requested it reassurance but didn’t get a guarantee.

Harris’s team said the new building would cost a total of $25 million and they hoped to have it built 2022.

District Attorney General Amy Weirich released a statement about the number of juveniles transferred to adult court:

"We request transfer hearings in one-third of the eligible cases. These are  juveniles charged with murder, rape, carjacking  and robbery . They are also, typically, juveniles who have been in and out of juvenile court countless times and continue to victimize our citizens. Our violent crime rate is high. The numbers of juveniles charged with violent crimes is growing. Yet, in 2018 73 juveniles were transferred as compared to 92 in 2017. Of those 92, 18 of them were charged in 13 separate murders. I look forward to this level of concern being extended to the innocent victims of these violent crimes."

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