Mayor touts construction of new Juvenile Justice Center amid controversy

Mayor Landrieu and other city officials break ground for new Juvenile Justice Center in Gentilly.
Mayor Landrieu and other city officials break ground for new Juvenile Justice Center in Gentilly.

New Orleans, La. -- Dumptrucks rumbled to and from a Gentilly construction site Tuesday. In between the trips, there was a groundbreaking ceremony, marking a major milestone for the city.

"Okay, you're ready? All right, one, two, three," said Mayor Mitch Landrieu as he and other city officials took part in the ceremony at the site.

"This new facility will help turn around a lot of young children whose lives are at risk," said Landrieu in talking about the new $32 million Juvenile Justice Center that will go up on the site.  It will replace the often-ridiculed Youth Study Center, which houses dozens of juveniles accused of serious crimes who are awaiting trial.

The 59,000-sq. foot complex will be unlike anything the city has had before. It will offer myriad services for juvenile delinquents 24 hours daily, including mental health and family services.

The new facility follows a consent decree hashed out after the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana sued the city in 2007 over the conditions juveniles were being held in at the Youth Study Center.

"Frequent suicide attempts and incidents of children being sent to the hospital," described Dana Kaplan, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana.

"The treatment of juveniles five years ago was harsh.  They were confined to cells for most of the day.  There was excessive use of shackles," said Landrieu.

Amid the forward movement on the new facility, there are political tensions which were on public display at the ceremony.

"Four courtrooms for six judges -- I found out about that yesterday," said Juvenile Court Chief Judge Ernestine Gray when the mayor asked her to say a few words at the event.

While Gray is pleased that a new facility is being built, she was taken aback by news that the mayor wants to reduce the number of Juvenile Court judges in the city. So the new building, which will include the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court, does not have enough courtrooms for the current number of judges.

"It would cost us six million more dollars to build two other courtrooms that all objective studies say are not necessary," Landrieu said to reporters after the groundbreaking ceremony.

He said more money needs to be dedicated to helping youngsters stay out of trouble.  "The city can't keep wasting money, you know, and overspending on things that we can do for less," he said.

Landrieu will need the approval of the state legislature to get fewer judges.

"I would have thought, as a lawyer and an understanding of the separation of the three branches of government, legislative, executive and judicial, that he would see that his intrusion into reducing the judges, trying to reduce the judges is outside of his bailiwick.  But everybody's entitled to their opinion," said Judge Gray.

The dispute over the number of judges aside, Landrieu was trumpeting the city's success in getting FEMA to commit more funds than originally offered to the project. He said the federal government should step up again to help the city fund the mandates in the NOPD and Orleans Parish Prison consent decrees.

"This is perfect example that, with the right amount of time and the creative, you know, juices of all of the people, everybody pulling together, that you can completely comply with the consent decree which we have done here," Landrieu said.