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Ellis Lucia, The Times-Picayune archive. The city-owned Youth Study Center in Gentilly was photographed in December 2007.

Published: Friday, January 28, 2011, 8:00 AM

Katy Reckdahl, The Times-Picayune By Katy Reckdahl, The Times-Picayune

More than a year ago, the city signed a consent decree with the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana agreeing to improve conditions in the city-owned, flood-damaged Youth Study Center in Gentilly and build a state-of-the-art facility to replace it.

While improvements have been made, plans for the new juvenile detention center remain in limbo.

Earlier this month, a federal judge lit a fire under the process.

“The building of a modern new juvenile detention center is the cornerstone of the Consent Decree,” wrote U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle this month as he asked the city to address by next month the criticisms raised in a recent report by Paul DeMuro, the New Jersey consultant appointed by the court to monitor conditions there.

“It cannot be said more clearly: the City is out of compliance with the Consent Decree,” DeMuro wrote in his report. “The City continues to waste good money and time attempting to maintain the outdated physical plant,” he wrote, while detained youths endure “repetitive and unappetizing meals,” lack outdoor recreation and receive medical care in a “cramped and dingy” trailer.

Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant wrote by e-mail that the facility is one of 100 projects that Mayor Mitch Landrieu has pledged to finish over the next three years and that his administration has increased its construction budget by nearly $9 million. Since taking office, Grant wrote, “we have revamped programming and are committed to building a new facility, which is currently in the site-selection phase.”

Much of the holdup can be traced to the need for a new site. Residents who have recently moved into the neighborhood of the 50-year-old facility oppose the existing center and any suggestion of building a new one there. Additionally, alumni of McDonogh 35 High School, which will be relocated to the vacant site once occupied by Edward Henry Phillips Junior High and Vorice Jackson Waters Elementary schools near the Youth Study Center, and the developers of Columbia Parc, the former St. Bernard public housing development nearby, have both said publicly that they’d like the facility out of their midst and off prime real estate bordering Bayou St. John.

Orleans Parish juvenile-court judges have jurisdiction over the youths who are held on average 10-12 days in the facility until trial. But decisions about a long-rumored move and as-yet secret list of alternative sites are all in the city’s hands.

“We’ve been told there are other places (to build the facility), but no one will tell us where they are,” Lawrence Lagarde, a longtime juvenile court judge, told the Council’s Criminal Justice Committee this week. If city planners decide to build in a new area, neighbors are likely to oppose it, delaying construction even further, he said. “I’m begging you to work this out,” Lagarde told the committee.

The new building will have a smaller capacity, Lagarde said, and “will be vastly different” from the current widely criticized site, which is ringed by a towering barbed-wire fence. Architects have said that the building could be secure even without fences, with outdoor spaces for detainees placed in interior courtyards, inaccessible to the neighborhood.

Juvenile advocates joined Lagarde in expressing frustration after the meeting. “The kids are the ones living in dilapidated and unsanitary conditions inside Youth Study Center while the developers play ‘Let’s Make a Deal’ in City Hall,” said Gina Womack, executive director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children.

Katy Reckdahl can be reached at or 504.826.3396.

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