N.O. to break ground on new juvenile jail, justice complex

Photo provided by city of New Orleans An artist's rendering of the new juvenile justice complex that will be built in Gentilly. The campus will include the Youth Study Center, which is the city's juvenile jail, as well as juvenile court, with offices for the district attorney and public defenders.
Photo provided by city of New Orleans An artist's rendering of the new juvenile justice complex that will be built in Gentilly. The campus will include the Youth Study Center, which is the city's juvenile jail, as well as juvenile court, with offices for the district attorney and public defenders.

Officials are preparing to break ground on a new, multimillion-dollar juvenile justice complex in Gentilly that will include not only a detention center but also court facilities and offices for public defenders and prosecutors.

The $32 million campus will replace the dilapidated Youth Study Center, the city’s juvenile jail, that was damaged during Hurricane Katrina and was the focus of a recent federal consent decree that stemmed from complaints about unconstitutional conditions at the facility.

James McCormick, a project manager supervisor with the city’s capital projects department, recently told a meeting of neighborhood residents that test pilings are being driven on the site at Imperial Drive and Encampment Street, across the street from the existing Youth Study Center. Construction of the new buildings, which represent one of the largest capital expenditures in the last year, is expected to be complete in spring 2014.

The new facility will be built on 6.2 acres that was formerly the site of a public housing development. The Housing Authority of New Orleans donated the land to the city in August 2011 after the agency discovered it once was used as a landfill and would require several million dollars in cleanup costs before it could build new housing there.

While there will be satellite office space for public defenders and employees of the District Attorney’s Office, the entire operation of juvenile court will vacate its current home in the Civil Courts building next to City Hall and relocate to a new court building at the juvenile justice complex, McCormick said.

The new buildings will be paid for with FEMA dollars, city bond funds, disaster community development block grants and law enforcement district bond funds, said C. Hayne Rainey, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

Those who worked to bring about a series of federally mandated changes at the Youth Study Center said the new facility is necessary to advance recent positive change in the juvenile justice system.

Three years ago, a federal judge approved the consent decrees to govern the education and treatment of New Orleans teenagers held at the Youth Study Center after the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana alleged unconstitutional conditions at the facility.

The decree spelled out improvements that were necessary in staffing, building safety, use of shackles, food, medical services and eventually a new building, among other issues.

“Everything was just completely insufficient,” said Dana Kaplan, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Project, which filed a class-action lawsuit in December 2007 against the city and Orleans Parish School Board, the agency that provides educational services to youths detained at the center.

“I will give them credit, they’ve been making real strides to do what they can with the structure they have,” Kaplan said.

Still, she said, the new campus is the final step in ensuring that the recent changes stick and provide a better environment.

“I certainly think what we’re trying to do is better integrate all the components of the juvenile justice system,” Kaplan said. “There’s still a little bit of work that needs to be done with education services, but overall the facility is doing much better.”