The Vasco A. Smith Jr. Administration Building (rt) in where Shelby County Commissioners Meet on March 3, 2022 in downtown Memphis, Tennessee (© Karen Pulfer Focht)
The Shelby County Commission voted to award funds for the restoration of a defunct correctional facility set to house the county’s juvenile offenders, despite concerns from critics advocating for supportive programs to keep youths out of jail.
Since 2012, Memphis and Shelby County Juvenile Courts have faced increasing scrutiny for failing to protect the constitutional rights of children facing criminal charges and transferring nearly half of all youths to adult facilities, according to a 2017 report.
A 2012 Memorandum of Agreement was formed with the U.S. Department of Justice, leading to the creation of the Countywide Juvenile Justice Consortium to report on the progress of juvenile courts in Memphis and Shelby County.
The DOJ ended its MOA in 2018, but in Sep. 2021, county commissioners voted to petition the federal government to again oversee the county’s juvenile detention centers after reports of Black children being more likely to be transferred to adult correctional facilities.
The DOJ has since inquired about the county’s juvenile detainees awaiting trial, and in response, county officials purchased a defunct correctional facility that ceased operation in 2008, intending to use it for housing juvenile offenders.
In total, county commissioners awarded more than $28 million to bring the facility up to date in order to create a state-of-the-art facility to “hopefully rehab those individuals who have made bad decisions. Because that’s what it’s all about,” said Commissioner Willie Brooks.
Despite promises to improve conditions for youth offenders, the decision to use county funds for a correctional facility instead of programs for crime deterrents faced scrutiny.
A member of the Countywide Juvenile Justice Consortium, a seven-member panel of juvenile justice advocates, requested more transparency about the building’s designs and youth-oriented programs and has received some pushback from project officials in request for more information.
“We want to make sure that youth (voices are) heard and considered, especially those youth who are just as impacted. They need to be listened to and this is a great time for their input to be considered moving forward,” said CJJC spokesperson Rebecca Davis.
“If there’s any advice on how we can work together or be involved, we would really appreciate that,” she added.
Commissioner Tami Sawyer, who was not at Monday’s meeting, has been vocally opposed to the special session on Twitter, calling it “rushed and sketchy.”
“The county has not put enough funding into youth initiatives that benefit youth instead of incarcerating them,” she said.
Other commissioners questioned why the project was being rushed, and project officials explained that construction costs have increased over the past two years and that the county risked higher costs if delays continue.
“I feel like we should be talking more about the programming and additional amenities to support the youths who may come in contact with this system,” said Commissioner Michael Whaley.
Project officials referred questions about programming to the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office.
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