'A new era of public safety'

Tribe opens huge new justice center in Tuba

By Krista Allen
Special to the Times

TUBA CITY, Ariz., February 21, 2013

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(Special to the Times – Krista Allen)

TOP: Tuba City District correctional officers stand in front of the new multipurpose Justice Center. From left to right, Leon Clitso, Gerald White, J.T. Bitsoi, Pete George, Melinda Halona, and Kahdebah Begay.

SECOND FROM TOP: Navajo Nation Council Speaker Johnny Naize thanks the council's Judiciary and Public Safety Committees that helped make the $57.5 million multipurpose Justice Center a "reality." Naize spoke Friday morning at the grand opening of the new facility in Tuba City.

S urrounded by community members and dignitaries from the across the state, local boarding school students Nicole Dodson and Aaron Tso sat patiently next to U.S. Attorney John Leonardo as none other than former Diné Chairman Peter MacDonald welcomed a large gathering Friday morning to the grand opening of the new multipurpose Justice Center here.

With any luck, their generation will soon forget the crowded jail, decrepit courthouse and police station housed in trailers that the beautiful new complex replaces.

There wasn't a dull moment when Dodson, a seventh-grader, knocked out the "Flag Song" in Navajo as Tso, a sixth grader, sang the national anthem, letting his impeccable voice do all the work.

"What a terrific voice," MacDonald said as he asked the crowd to give them another round of applause. "(They're) even better than Beyoncé at the Super Bowl."

Thereafter, Navajo Police Officer Perry Champagne of the Tuba City District delivered the invocation, asking the crowd to rise for a moment of silence in commemoration of slain police Sgt. Darrell Curley and other men and women who have died in the line of duty.

"Today is a great day for the Navajo Nation," President Ben Shelly said at the grand opening of the 144,000-square-foot complex. "We're beginning a new era of public safety on the (reservation).

"The plan for this justice center you see here today began years ago," Shelly continued. "It became a reality when the Navajo Nation received funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act."

When President Barack Obama signed the ARRA into law in 2009 in the amount of $787 billion, the tribe's Division of Public Safety received a grant of $38.5 million to construct an innovative multiplex with courtrooms, correctional areas, law enforcement offices, and support spaces. The tribe made an in-kind contribution of $19 million. Accordingly, the total cost for the project was approximately $57.5 million.

"And with the help of our sales tax for public safety, we're able to procure funding," Shelly said. "We received the funding because we all know the needs of creating safer communities on our (nation)."

When federal authorities surveyed American Indian jailhouses in 2004, they discovered inhumane conditions such as overcrowding, poor prisoner monitoring and supervision, and staffing shortages. Then-Public Safety Committee Chairwoman Hope MacDonald-Lonetree said then that the tribe needed more detention facilities, personnel, and equipment to make communities secure.

While detention facilities on the reservation were built in the late 50s and early 60s, the former Tuba City courthouse was built in the 70s.

"It has aged over 40 years," Supreme Court Associate Justice Eleanor Shirley said. "The old facility was shifting and it was causing stress cracks on the walls."

The Office of Environmental Health and Engineering condemned it years ago after issuing numerous environmental citations.

"We would have leaks that would cause musty smells and odors," Shirley said. "We always had concerns about mold and exposure to asbestos - it was unsafe."

"We're thankful for the building that has been made," said Speaker Johnny Naize Blue Gap-Tachee/Cottonwood-Tselani/Low Mountain/Nazlini). "Maybe someone herded sheep on the (site) that the facility was built on. Maybe someone lived there."

Shirley says the building would never have been built without the effort of the community.

"The safety of our community is still a priority," she said.

John Leonardo, the U.S. attorney, says the opening of the facility will serve many purposes long into the future.

"The Justice Center will provide badly needed detention space that will allow the (Navajo) government to keep dangerous offenders out of your community," Leonardo said.

Tuba City Corrections Supervisor Lt. Robbin Preston says the four-story, 132-bed detention center has minimum- to maximum-security cells, temporary holding cells, and space to provide services such as GED courses and drug and alcohol treatment.

Preston says he has 25 correctional officers for the juvenile and adult facilities, but needs more.

"This is a historic event," Council Delegate Joshua Lavar Butler (To Nanees Dizi) said at the closing of the ceremony. "It is certainly an accomplishment (of) magnitude."

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