Juvenile Justice Center update: Douglas County officials ponder overflow plans

The $128 million center, located at 17th and Harney streets, is set to open next summer.
Published: Aug. 18, 2022 at 5:20 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Construction downtown of the new Juvenile Justice Center is on-budget and on-time, city officials said Thursday. But some are starting to wonder whether it’s big enough.

The $128 million center, located at 17th and Harney streets, is set to open next summer. Thursday, officials said three courtrooms are now complete.

The facility is meant to be a one-stop shop for the city’s youth criminal processes, housing the courts, attorneys, and detention in one place.

It has a capacity of 64 beds, but with the recent wave of crime among young people, some are wondering whether the facility is big enough, asking what happens during weeks like this week when there are more young people ordered to be detained than there are beds.

The Douglas County Youth Center is supposed to accommodate a population of 68, but it’s been more than 70 at times in the past week. But in the new facility, there wouldn’t be room for four youngsters; the new Juvenile Justice Center has 64 beds.

A number of those recently detained are accused of stealing Kias and Hyundais as part of a wave of TikTok challenges, joyriding, and often leaving the damaged vehicles behind. Some of those suspects are as young as 11, 12, and 13 years old.

For many of them, the center is just a short-term stay. But for those detained here, the range of charges can be wide. Besides the joyriding teens, there are others accused of murder awaiting trial inside those walls.

Construction for the new juvenile justice center in downtown Omaha is on budget and on time.

“Public safety comes first — always,” Douglas County Commissioner Mike Friend said. “There are some things out of our control, and we have a practical problem.”

He said he thinks there needs to be a backup plan to account for overflows.

One possibility: Keep the current youth center open, or maybe reserve it for those teens being tried as adults.

“There are an awful lot of people working on this,” Friend said. “We had a meeting Monday including folks from the judiciary, probation, state, county level. It would be a major concern if we weren’t addressing it, but i think we are.”

As the justice center development corporation gives its monthly construction update, this is what the new detention center rooms look like:

“I don’t want to say an apartment-feel, but more like a college dorm-feel — as much as you can in a secure facility,” project attorney George Achola said. “That’s what we’re aiming at; we don’t want the kids to feel institutionalized, so to speak.”

Stakeholders understand that this is serious business, and that the solutions are never easy.

“If you look, historically, we have these spikes in the summer months before school starts,” Douglas County Commissioner Mary Ann Borgeson said. “Nothing real unusual yet, but there are conversations about a Plan B, Plan C — what do we do if/when we do move; what happens if we have too many kids?”

Borgeson said the youth center is also taking youngsters from other counties right now. That practice will end at the end of the year, which would reduce the population by a handful. She said that “Plan B” would likely be decided by the end of the year.

The new Juvenile Justice Center is scheduled to open next June.