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Construction of a new juvenile detention facility in Erie County has become bogged down in politics, and while a county legislator says the conflict over the choice of architectural firm is not holding up progress, it's clear that the Legislature is allowing side issues to cloud what has to be the priority: getting incarcerated youths out of this rat hole.

This is a dreadful place. It's overcrowded. Pipes leak. Sinks are broken; toilets, too. Girls have had to use the boys' restroom. There is no universal unlocking system, meaning a fire could easily be deadly. It is a miserable and dangerous place, one that undermines its own mission of redirecting troubled youth onto a path away from prison.

Against this nightmarish background, county leaders are squabbling over who will design the new center. It's a depressing state of affairs to observe. Imagine how it must seem if you've been sent to live there.

There are several issues, but the main one, according to Legislator George Holt Jr., D-Buffalo, is the fight with the Giambra administration over who will design the new center. Holt and other legislators favor the firm of Buffalo architect Robert Traynham Coles, one of the few minority architectural firms in the state. In fact, said Holt, the county signed a contract with Coles for that very purpose.

The Giambra administration acknowledges the contract, but says it has been made void by a federal law that requires new bids when a project has substantially changed, as this one has, on account of new laws and regulations regarding juvenile facilities. With those new considerations factored in, and relying on established guidelines for awarding a professional service contract, the Giambra administration has selected a New Jersey company, said Public Works Commissioner Maria Lehman.

Racial issues are important in this country. Our history makes them that way, and only a tone-deaf person could fail to comprehend that. But racial issues cut in many directions and, in this case, Holt and other legislators emphasizing that concern should worry more about the minority youths being ground up in the rusted machinery of the juvenile detention facility than whether a minority firm will be paid to design a better one.

And if the fate of these young people isn't enough to move the Legislature, perhaps a little self-interest will do the trick. Legal experts say the county risks potentially expensive lawsuits on behalf of inmates or their parents if improvements are delayed. Moreover, safety could be an issue as could the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. While it's true that the Supreme Court has looked skeptically at similar lawsuits involving adults, it is reasonable to assume that the longer the county delays action, the more it risks a lawsuit.

There may be some time for the argument over a new detention center to play out without holding up construction. In the end, though, the architect's qualifications, not race, need to be the primary issue.

Still, legislators might want to conduct a little experiment before allowing this dispute to drag on much longer. Let them spend a few nights in the detention center. Let them deal with the grim facts of broken toilets and piles of mattresses that pass for beds. Let them be among 16 people crowded into a room made for 12.

There's nothing like a dose of reality to focus the attention.

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