Douglas County plans to begin moving detained young people into its new downtown juvenile detention center in November, and aims to close the current Douglas County Youth Center in January.
That’s despite the fact that the number of juveniles detained at the Douglas County Youth Center, while lower than it has been in the recent past, continues to exceed the capacity of the new facility.
As of Thursday, 69 young people were being held at the current detention center. The new downtown facility will have 64 beds, but its operational capacity will be lower than that because of the need to separate groups of youths by gender and for other reasons.
It is part of a $120 million project that also includes a Douglas County Courthouse annex and renovation of the former Metropolitan Utilities District headquarters into juvenile probation offices.
“We are working on a transition plan from the old facility to the new facility,” Kim Hawekotte, deputy county administrator for juvenile justice services, said Thursday. “The goal of the transition plan is that all use would be transitioned by Jan. 1, 2024, with the transition to start no later than Nov. 1.”
Hawekotte made the remarks during a presentation to the board of the Douglas County Juvenile Justice Center Development Corp. (JCDC). That’s the public-private entity that the Douglas County Board created to oversee construction of the detention center and a courthouse annex.
Also Thursday, a marketing firm gave the JCDC board a presentation on an advertising and public relations campaign to promote Douglas County as being “on the cutting edge of juvenile justice reform.” The firm, Clark Creative Group, is being paid by the Sherwood Foundation to do the campaign.
Mary Ann Borgeson, chair of the Douglas County Board and the JCDC board, said at the meeting that the county hopes to close the doors of the current detention center by January.
In an interview later, she said delaying the move for a few months gives the county “more time to really evaluate who is there, get a better understanding why the length of stay is going up, and work with system partners and providers to see what needs they may have.
“This is also giving system partners a good amount of time to understand that as of Jan. 1 we will have 64 beds,” Borgeson said. “With this small delay we do not foresee being over capacity.”
Chris Rodgers, a member of the Douglas County and JCDC boards, noted that, according to Hawekotte’s report, 30 of the young people in detention as of Thursday are charged as adults in criminal courts. The others are in juvenile court proceedings.
“Right now, there’s just 30 kids who really need to be there, the adult-charged,” Rodgers said.
The court system is moving too slowly on those young people’s cases, leading to their staying too long in county youth detention before having their cases decided, Rodgers said.
“By us putting the notice out, people are going to have start moving kids,” Rodgers said. “There’s kids that have been in there for 100-plus days. That has to move.”
He said several things are happening that will reduce the youth detention numbers. Those include such detention alternatives as Radius, a soon-to-open 24-bed residential treatment facility on the former St. Paul Lutheran campus in Omaha, and more placements available at Uta Halee Academy, a residential treatment program for young women in Omaha.
The county also will renegotiate its contract with state juvenile probation on what young people the county will accept in youth detention, Rodgers said.
“So over about a nine-month period, the goal is to get down to where we need to be to move,” he said.
The Omaha police union and Douglas County Sheriff Aaron Hanson have expressed concern over the more than three years the project has been in the works that it will be too small.
Hanson reiterated that view Thursday.
“Based on what I’ve seen, both in terms of high-risk, violent juvenile offenders and repeat juvenile offenders, we have been consistently running ahead of the structural and design capacity for some time now,” Hanson said. “And if we lose the option of having a safe, secure facility to keep high-risk youth in, if those numbers continue to climb, we are going to create a dangerous public safety situation.”
According to Hawekotte’s presentation Thursday, 43 young people currently in detention, or 62%, had some type of gun charge.
Rodgers said “public safety will be met.”
“We have room for the kids that are a public threat,” he said.
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