September 29 Letter to the Editor

Task force argues the need for a new justice center

September 29, 2002
On behalf of the Indianapolis Bar Association/Marion County Bar Association Justice Center Task Force, we applaud The Star for its editorials regarding Marion County's public safety crisis. The Star is correct that the public needs to be involved in and support our elected officials as they work toward long-term solutions to these problems.

To that end, local bar associations have combined the forces of more than 4,000 attorney members to create a Justice Center Task Force. It is a blue-ribbon panel of judges and attorneys with the common goal of a safe, efficient, adequate justice center for Marion County where the public's important judicial business can be administered with dignity.

The facts: Forty years ago, the City-County Building was completed in Indianapolis to serve as the central offices for local government. A secondary purpose was to house the Marion County courts, tucked away in a relatively small separate west wing of the building with recessed courts.

Much has changed since then. In 1960, the population of Indianapolis was 697,000, the surrounding counties were rural, and crime and the courts' caseloads were manageable. When the City-County Building opened, there was space for 16 courts. The volume and behavior of litigants were generally reasonable, and building security was an afterthought.

Today, Indianapolis has grown to nearly 860,000 residents, and the metropolitan area is home to more than 1.6 million. The surrounding counties are increasingly integrated with Marion County, commerce has expanded dramatically, and despite the Indianapolis Police Department now having more than 1,100 sworn officers and 285 civilian employees, crime has increased substantially (averaging about 30,000 serious reported crimes annually by IPD alone). Litigants are no longer always predictable or reasonable, and building security concerns are paramount.

These factors have of course meant more civil and criminal work for the local courts. Today, there are 32 courts squeezed into an antiquated office building originally designed for 16, an increase of 100 percent. In addition, more than 60 judicial officers are attempting to manage more than 240,000 new cases filed each year, including nearly 3,000 major felonies annually and almost 40,000 total criminal cases annually.

A brief review of these statistics or a tour of the behind-the-scenes court space in the City-County Building immediately reveals the problem. The nation's 12th largest city is managing its burgeoning caseload from a 40-year-old government office building that is wholly inadequate as a justice center. Among the daily problems:

Prisoners are transported in the midst of jurors, judges, witnesses, parties, victims and even children; hearings and even some jury trials are conducted in tiny ad hoc hearing rooms where security risks are great and justice is cheapened; jurors are moved about like cattle, at times even having to sit on the floor awaiting their next move; many hearings on contentious matters take place without law enforcement officers on the same floor; lawyers have no choice but to counsel their clients in the midst of crowded hallways often with opposing counsel or parties nearby, or through a holding cell door crowded with other defendants.

The entire process lacks an appropriate and necessary sense of decorum, deliberation and justice.

The solution is obvious. Indianapolis and Marion County need a justice center designed for the 21st century. The system has gotten all it can out of the current structure through makeshift and short-term solutions. The 1960 office-tower design of the building ultimately precludes safe and efficient management of a growing local judicial system.

The public will hear and read much about our task force work in the coming months. We ask everyone to become informed about these important issues, and to support our elected officials as they work toward public safety solutions that should include a new justice center.

Maley is president of the Indianapolis Bar Association, Rivera is president of the Marion County Bar Association, and Kautzman is chair of the IBA/MCBA Justice Center Task Force.