In a major shift, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office on Wednesday promised  $7 million  to expand the city’s juvenile-detention facility.

The new project will set aside 24 beds for youth charged with crimes, and ensure removal of all defendants under 18 from Orleans regardless of the charges they face, advocates say. Sarah McLaughlin, a Landrieu spokeswoman, said a bid for design will go out in December and the project is slated for completion in 2018.*

Previously, the city said the work would depend on using part of $54 million in hurricane-recovery money from FEMA. But one of Landrieu’s top lieutenants told the City Council Wednesday morning that the city’s capital budget will be tapped if the FEMA money can’t be used. That commitment ensures the expansion of the Youth Study Center, as the juvenile lockup is known.

Landrieu and Sheriff Marlin Gusman continue to argue over who can use the recovery money, and youth advocates despaired of any progress while the two continue their political tiff.

At a budget presentation in City Council Chambers today, Cedric Grant, who oversees the city’s capital development, said the fight would no longer determine the outcome of how pretrial juveniles are housed when accused of committing crimes.

“We’ve begun the process of pursuing design on that project,” Grant said. “And I am developing plans to be able to provide the funding of the project, regardless of whether we do have the FEMA funds.”

“This is a no-brainer. The fact that we are having this conversation, and have to have this rally, seriously concerns me. And it should concern everybody that’s elected to work in the criminal justice system.”— City Councilman Jason Williams

Rachel Gassert, the policy director for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, said Wednesday she was thrilled with Grant’s pledge to house all youth in the juvenile facility.

“This decision will not only make things safer for them, but it will make our city safer,” she told City Council and the mayor’s office.

Gassert had previously accused the city and the sheriff of using children as pawns in their political standoff, and she has been fighting to get youth out “one of the worst jails in the nation.”

Despite the city jail’s court-ordered reforms, mandated under a federal consent decree, advocates such as Gassert have long documented “injustices” to youth at the facility – including 23-hour-a-day confinement, harassment, beatings, rape, suicide and even murder.

The effort to get youth out of the facility came to a head Wednesday morning, during a rally outside New Orleans City Hall, where City Council members Susan Guidry and Jason Williams told the public that Orleans Parish Prison was no place for children.

“This is a no-brainer,” Williams said during a speech at the rally. “The fact that we are having this conversation, and have to have this rally, seriously concerns me. And it should concern everybody that’s elected to work in the criminal justice system.”

After making his statement, Williams signed a Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights petition urging policymakers to prioritize the Youth Study Center project.

The plea had garnered more than 1,700 signatures in a month’s time, according to Renee Sladja, a spokeswoman for the organization, including former juvenile inmate Jules Verne.

“Personally, as a former juvenile inmate at OPP, I had issues with people trying to starve me and steal my bed,” Verne said. “This can be traumatic and considered cruel and unusual punishment.”

By noon, the entire City Council had signed it.

The movement began earlier this year, when a working group assembled by Landrieu met at City Hall to discuss conditions teens face in Orleans Parish Prison.

During that meeting, members of New Orleans City Council heard testimony from judges, youth advocates, the City Attorney’s Office and the council’s Criminal Justice Committee. There were details of abuse, including brutal beatings and prolonged solitary confinement.

Advocates proposed a solution: house the juveniles at the Youth Study Center, where the staff is trained to work with children and conditions are humane.

The facility also provides education, recreation and services for youth with disabilities, Gassert has said.

The City Council agreed, and in June, it passed an ordinance establishing the Youth Study Center as the “appropriate adult facility” for those inmates.

But the ordinance set aside just 12 beds — not enough for all the juveniles arrested who awaited trial, and not meant for youth who had been arrested for more serious crimes, including murder and rape.

Officials decided that in order for the new system to work, the Youth Study Center would have to expand.

At a preliminary budget hearing in October, Landrieu proposed a solution: a $7 million wing that would accommodate 24 juveniles being prosecuted as adults. The design would ensure that low-risk offenders aren’t kept alongside defendants charged with more serious crimes.

To pay for that, though, Sheriff Marlin Gusman would have to agree not to expand his new jail.

That’s because the mayor said the money would come from the $54 million in federal funds earmarked for the city’s criminal justice system.

Gusman wants to use the money to build a facility called Phase III, which would have cell blocks for mentally ill inmates, a medical clinic and a laundry facility. The new 380-bed building would hold juvenile defendants, too.

Landrieu proposes using that FEMA money for other projects, including the Youth Study Center expansion and a $7 million retrofit of the 1,438-bed Phase II tower, to hold the acutely mentally ill.

Originally, the money was set aside to replace Orleans Parish Prison’s Templeman II facility, a massive prison building that stood on Perdido Street before Hurricane Katrina.

On Wednesday, Guidry celebrated the move by the mayor’s office to extract the issue of juvenile detention from the political arguments surrounding the expansion of Orleans Parish Prison.

“We really appreciate you listening to the people and to the Council,” Guidry told Grant at the hearing.

In a statement Wednesday, Gusman said his facilities are adequate for youth.

“All youth offenders in our care are kept separate from the general population. While they could legally be placed in general population, the Sheriff has created a special classification for youth offenders in order to keep them segregated,” the statement  said. “Moving juveniles that are held as adults will not do anything to meet the need for the space, services and programs needed to house and care for the individuals in OPSO custody, according to the commitments that the OPSO has made to the people of New Orleans and the federal court.”

He said juveniles in his care are given education, mental health treatment, telephone privileges and other services and allowances.

He said only six juveniles are now in OPSO custody awaiting trial as adults, out of more than 1,782 inmates. Another 19 inmates under 18 are being held under orders from the courts or the District Attorney’s Office.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed the statement about removing youths from Orleans Parish Prison to city spokeswoman Sarah McLaughlin.

Della Hasselle

Della Hasselle, a freelance journalist and producer, reports environmental and criminal justice stories for The Lens. A graduate of Benjamin Franklin High School and the New Orleans Center for Creative...