City leaders gathered in the St. Bernard neighborhood on Tuesday to formally inaugurate the New Orleans Juvenile Justice Center, a $47 million campus on Milton Street that has brought the city’s Juvenile Court and related operations under one roof.
The 59,000-square-foot facility, built alongside Bayou St. John, replaces the former outdated home of the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court in the Civil District Court building next to City Hall. It also includes the new Youth Study Center, a 40-bed juvenile detention center that opened two years ago.
The complex, paid for in large part with hurricane recovery dollars, also has offices for juvenile prosecutors and defense attorneys, along with an open courtyard, kitchens and recreational areas.
Officials already are planning an expansion of the facility to accommodate additional juvenile housing.
“Every single person that we could fit — and that the mayor allowed us to move in — we have asked to come and take space in this building,” Candice Bates-Anderson, the chief judge of Juvenile Court, said at the ribbon-cutting. “This is a new day for us.”
The opening of the complex comes at a time when calls for juvenile justice reform have gained steam in Louisiana and beyond. The state Senate this week overwhelmingly approved a bill that would raise from 17 to 18 the age at which a youth is considered an adult in the criminal justice system.
One speaker after another alluded to this momentum Tuesday, saying the new complex would send a positive message of rehabilitation to local juvenile offenders and their families.
“The irony of an extraordinary building like this is that nobody here ever wants a child to see the inside of it, if that’s at all possible,” said Josh Perry, executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights. He said the multimillion-dollar project should be “exceeded many times over by our investment in the vulnerable children and families that make up New Orleans.”
Even District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro — who tries 15- and 16-year-old criminal suspects in adult court at a far higher rate than other Louisiana prosecutors — sounded an optimistic note, calling the new complex “an opportunity center” that gives youths a second chance to “do something constructive and productive” with their lives.
“We find, unfortunately, in the city of New Orleans that people are going to make mistakes during the course of their life, and they’re going to make mistakes when they’re sometimes very young,” Cannizzaro said. “But it would be certainly foolish for us to throw those lives away. Just because someone makes a mistake during the course of their life, that does not mean their life is a mistake.”
Bates-Anderson said the complex represents a dramatic improvement from the Juvenile Court’s previous accommodations, which she said had been adorned with cobwebs and “other things that we left in place that will be left unsaid.”
The complex was constructed on 6.2 acres that the Housing Authority of New Orleans donated to the city in 2011.
The building, which had been under construction since February 2013, was paid for with contributions from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s Orleans Parish Law Enforcement District and city bonds.
“It’s in the middle of a neighborhood that right now is being completely and totally reconstructed,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said, referring to new developments such as the nearby Columbia Parc residential community and the new McDonogh No. 35 High School, which can be seen from the juvenile complex.
City leaders touted the opening as a turning of the page for New Orleans’ historically troubled juvenile justice system. The old Youth Study Center, which was heavily damaged in Hurricane Katrina, had been assailed for lax oversight and unsanitary conditions that prompted a federal consent decree that governed the education and treatment of teens held there.
The city complied with the mandatory changes and came out from under the federal oversight in 2013.
“The most important thing about this building is the message that we send the kids and the families that come here, that we think they’re important, that we think they’re valuable,” said Councilman James Gray, whose wife, Ernestine Gray, has served as a Juvenile Court judge for more than three decades.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.