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Nebraska official raises concerns about Douglas County juvenile detention center plans

Nebraska official raises concerns about Douglas County juvenile detention center plans

Juvenile center rendering as of 20190616 (copy)

An architect’s rendering of the juvenile detention center portion of the Douglas County justice center development.

Between 2011 and 2016, 94 state prisons and juvenile facilities across the U.S. have closed.

State officials overseeing jails want Douglas County to address several concerns before receiving final approval for the downtown juvenile detention center plans.

Those include a too-small space for visitation, parking for visitors and volunteers, room sizes that would prohibit the county from expanding the capacity in the future, staffing, food service for detained youths and natural light in their rooms. The concerns were spelled out in a letter to the Douglas County Board from Denny Macomber, director of the Jail Standards Division of the Nebraska Crime Commission.

They won’t prevent the Jail Standards Board from approving the project. The plans as submitted meet the state’s jail design and construction standards, Macomber said Monday.

“The issues we have and that I address there (in the letter) are things that they need to straighten out before they move in to avoid problems down the road,” he said.

The list includes serious concerns. The room size issue relates to the relatively smaller capacity, 64 people, at the county’s new detention center than at the current Douglas County Youth Center, which can hold more than 100.

At 77 square feet each, the rooms in the new detention center will be smaller than the 90-square-foot rooms at the current facility. The new rooms will big enough for one person each, Macomber said.

“We recognize this is by design,” his letter said. “However, making the rooms smaller than ninety square feet means that these rooms can never be double bunked should the county want to expand their options for housing in the future.”

The smaller capacity is a key aspect of the project, part of a desire to reform juvenile justice, including by reducing the number of youths in detention. It’s also been a key point for critics of the project, including the Omaha police union. The concerns in Macomber’s letter are on the agenda for Tuesday’s County Board meeting.

The Jail Standards Division has had concerns about the overall capacity question but isn’t weighing in on it at the moment. Douglas County has been making progress on reducing the number of juveniles in detention, Macomber said. But state officials want board members to be fully aware that they are limiting future capacity and to plan accordingly, he said.

“Our MO here always is to look for worst-case scenarios,” Macomber said. “We want to solve problems before they occur.”

Douglas County Board Chairwoman Mary Ann Borgeson said the visitation space is being increased and the other concerns are being addressed.

“I have no doubt they’ll be addressed and fixed appropriately,” she said.

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Chris Burbach covers the Douglas County Board, Planning Board and other local government bodies, as well as local neighborhood issues. Follow him on Twitter @chrisburbach. Phone: 402-444-1057.

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