After years of delays, a costly site move and epic political wrangling, officials say construction of Wayne County’s new campus of criminal justice buildings was pushed back again Thursday.
Rock Ventures and Wayne County announced the five-building Criminal Justice Complex deal in 2018, and last month pegged construction is expected to conclude May 30. But on Thursday, Wayne County Corporation Counsel James Heath told county commissioners that the date won’t be met. He did not immediately provide a new time estimate.
The latest delay comes after County Executive Warren Evans in March declared a public health state of emergency at the county’s existing Juvenile Detention Facility amid overcrowding, understaffing and assault allegations.
When Wayne County and Rock sign off on project completion, the complex – consisting of a courthouse, adult jail, juvenile detention facility, administration building and utility building – will be officially handed over to the county. At that point, the county will have six months to move in or it will be charged $500,000 per month by Rock.
“The reason why it is so important for us to make sure that we’re very, very careful with that (the turnover date), frankly, is because of the responsibilities that shift to the county afterwards,” Heath said at the commission meeting Thursday.
Glenn Anderson, District 12 commissioner and chair of the county’s Criminal Justice Complex Committee, expressed concern over pushing the move-in window into winter at the meeting.
Heath responded that he wasn’t concerned about weather conditions impacting the transition.
“What I am more concerned about, quite frankly, and why we’re holding the line, is work continuing to be done while we try to transition,” Heath said.
During his State of the County address, Evans said that the efficiencies of a centralized location “will help us to do more with less resources.”
Anderson has told BridgeDetroit that county staffers are ready for the move and have assured the commission that the six-month window will be met.
Anderson added that costs for the complex were lower than he expected, despite add-ons over the course of construction, such as $20 million to contract a new electricity provider after the previous company went under.
“Obviously, we haven’t reached the end of the road yet on this project, but I still think it (the cost) is going to be pretty darn close to what we anticipated,” Anderson said.
The county will provide free parking for staff and visitors at the court and detention facilities, and the new jail will have video conferencing for inmates to speak to loved ones, Anderson said.
Wayne County and Rock signed the Criminal Justice Center deal in 2018 after cost overruns and delays led the county to abandon a failed jail project near Frank Murphy Hall of Justice.
The new Criminal Justice Center was originally budgeted at $533 million. As of December, the total project cost was nearly $609 million, according to the Detroit Free Press. However, Wayne County costs for the project are capped at $380 million, and any budget overruns are incurred by Rock, according to the contract. Rock did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Dale Milford, a long-time member of the nonprofit organization Michigan United and a pastor involved with local detention facilities, has cited yearslong building issues at the current jail, including leaking plumbing, fissures in walls and more.
“I’ve been anxiously awaiting (the new complex) opening for the longest time, because Wayne County Jail is an antiquated, behemoth monstrosity of a facility,” Milford told BridgeDetroit.
In 2015, the Detroit Free Press toured the county’s jails. Drain fly larvae, an unequipped infirmary and outdated lockboxes were just some of the issues discovered eight years ago.
This March, the Free Press uncovered the alleged sexual assault of a 12-year-old boy in the county’s William Dickerson Detention Facility in Hamtramck. People at the jail had been locked in rooms for extended periods and were denied showers, schooling and recreational activity. Young people were also picking locks and breaking out of cells, the Free Press reported.
In October 2022, the county moved individuals from its juvenile facility to a vacant adult jail in Hamtramck in hopes of resolving safety issues where more inmates could be supervised at once by fewer staff, WXYZ reported last year.
However, young people are still being detained in rooms for long periods of time, and the facility lacks classrooms, recreational facilities and other features designed for young people, said Jason Smith, executive director of advocacy organization Michigan Center for Youth Justice.
“The juvenile detention facility is truly a holding place,” Smith said. “It is where a young person is supposed to be safely and securely held until they move to where their next placement is.”
Young people have been confined in the detention facility for months longer than planned, the county stated in a public health emergency order this March. People were supposed to move to long-term residential treatment facilities run by the state, but many have closed due to staffing shortages and safety concerns. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer created a Juvenile Residential Facilities Advisory Committee last year to review licensing standards, staff training and case management standards.
“Nothing could replace having a kid home in the community. Even with the facility opening… (the county) has to also constantly be looking at ways to improve community care,” Smith said.
Erin Keith, managing policy counsel for the Detroit Justice Center, said the multimillion dollar budget could’ve been better spent in the community rather than toward the confinement of people.
“While no one should be housed in unsafe conditions, jails don’t promote public safety,” Keith said.
The legal services and advocacy center argues that the CJC’s original $533 million budget could’ve funded dozens of community-based restorative justice centers, the renovation and modernization of Detroit Public Schools Community District buildings as well as hundreds of beds for mental health and rehabilitation facilities, among other things.
Plans for a new county jail system began after the court uncovered inhumane conditions in the existing detention facilities over a decade ago, Anderson noted. Prior to the agreement with Rock, Wayne County began jail construction on a Gratiot lot, funded in part by issuing $200 million in Internal Revenue Service bonds in 2010, according to the county executive’s office. After former County Executive Robert Ficano halted construction in 2013, the county considered numerous proposals for the land where the failed jail would have been, including a mixed-use complex, soccer stadium and innovation center—none of which came to fruition, The Detroit News reported.
The administration tried to recontinue the Gratiot jail in 2016 with new contractors but ultimately abandoned the site. Demolition of the incomplete Gratiot jail began in 2018.
“In hindsight, I think the canceling of that may have been a mistake, because this is going to cost three and a half to four times as much,” Anderson said of the original jail project, but, he added the new complex is more than just the jail and congregating related facilities into one area will save money in the long run.
Going forward, Milford stressed that the new buildings are just part of a larger solution.
“The facility is just the framework of it,” Milford said. “The staffing, the programming, the policies—these are all issues that could and should be watched carefully.”