November 25, 2002 Indianapolis Star


Law groups seek new courthouse
Public and prisoners share halls, elevators in 40-year-old building.

November 25, 2002
Each weekday morning, shackled Marion County Jail inmates, escorted by a single sheriff's deputy, head to court.

About 300 a day make the 10-minute trek through a tunnel to the City-County Building. There, they ride one of four elevators to the courts above.

Three of those elevators also carry judges and court staff. One is used by the public -- and by Mayor Bart Peterson.

The inmates walk through public hallways and past offices -- including one used as a day-care center for children of people appearing in court. They pass witnesses, plaintiffs and jurors -- even participants in their own cases.

It's an accident waiting to happen -- and it's one reason a joint task force of the Indianapolis and Marion County Bar associations will recommend today building a new courthouse at a cost of $100 million. The suggested locations are across the street on Washington Street or at the site of the old Indiana State Museum at Alabama and Ohio streets. It would be funded by a property tax increase, higher court fees and traffic fines.

The way things are now, "there is going to be an incident," said David Cook, Marion County chief public defender. "Nothing terrible has happened yet, but with these cramped quarters, I don't think it is a matter of if, but when. The situation is just right for something bad to happen."

The situation is caused by overcrowding in the courtrooms and a severe lack of space in a 40-year-old, 28-story tower never intended to be used so exhaustively. Thirty-two courts are now jammed into a building intended to hold 16.

"The current facility is unsafe, unjust and undignified," said John Maley, executive director of the Indianapolis Bar Association. "It is time the nation's 12th-largest city make the capital investment in a safe and adequate justice center."

He said standard practice in most courthouses in other counties across the country is to keep defendants totally separate from witnesses and other members of the public when the defendants are brought to court. That isn't possible in Marion County given the current facilities, he added.

"Threat of violence"

The task force found potential danger around almost every corner of the building.

"The threat of violence is most evident in the Civil and Domestic Courts, where personal emotions can run highest and are the most volatile," the report states. "Witness protection, by means of separation, does not exist currently."

In one courtroom, defendants sit close enough to witnesses on the stand that they can reach out and touch -- or hit -- them. In another, witnesses for both sides are squeezed next to each other on cafeteria chairs.

"We've had situations where fights in hallways break out; it is very volatile," Cook said. "It's just too close of quarters for adversarial hearings."

Shackled inmates are lined together against the courtroom windows, within whispering distance of spectators. An armed bailiff is hard-pressed to stop note passing and conversation between the prisoners and their families.

In the City-County Building basement, scores of recently arrested detainees are kept in a lockup that holds 297 people awaiting processing. The inmates are whisked up and down elevators all day long to different floors for different routines -- mug shots, fingerprinting, property inventory.

Arrests in building

An average of 42 arrests a month occur inside the building and 60 alarms are sounded each month, according to the bar associations' report.

Considering that 57,432 prisoners have made their way to court this year, the number should be considered remarkably low, Maley said.

"Prisoners are transported in the midst of jurors, witnesses, victims, judges and children," Maley said. "Many hearings on contentious matters are conducted in ad-hoc hearing rooms where security risks are great."

One such place is Courtroom 99 on the sixth floor of the east wing -- Judge Louis Rosenberg's court -- where nonviolent felony and drug cases are heard.

The courtroom used to be an office. Tables for the defense and prosecution are directly in front of Rosenberg's bench. There is no witness chair. Those on "the stand" simply address the judge from a seat at their lawyer's table.

There are 12 chairs for spectators, and against the window behind a velvet rope, four chairs for inmates.

"The proximity here makes things a little tense," said Steve Powell, 50, a Kmart security guard who appears in court about once a week to testify against accused thieves.

Public Defender David Pumphrey said it is impossible to talk privately to his clients in Courtroom 99.

"Everybody in the courtroom can hear what you are saying, even when whispering," he said.

For the same reason, judges can't have bench sidebars with attorneys in that courtroom.

Pumphrey said the small quarters also cramp his style, literally.

It makes it impossible for him to move around the courtroom when putting on a case and difficult to make visual presentations.

Lack of dignity

Rosenberg calls it simply, "a bad situation."

"Safety is the biggest concern," he said.

For that reason, Rosenberg doesn't keep his metal nameplate on his bench.

"It's sharp, and it is too close to the action," he said. "Someone could use it as a weapon."

Court Administrator Mark Renner said the ad-lib courtrooms debase the justice system.

"There's no sense of dignity in some of these courtrooms," Renner said. "It can also affect how prosecutors try their case or defense attorneys defend their clients."

On a daily basis, 3,000 employees see the inmates come and go.

Libby Schilling has worked in the law library on the third floor for 15 years. The library is right next to the freight elevator that transports prisoners.

"I take the elevator down to the basement to get the mail everyday and lots of times there are prisoners on board," she said. "But most of them are polite and don't cause any problems."

"But I do think there should be a way to take the freight elevator without sharing it with prisoners," she said.

It's not just members of the public, lawyers and City-County Building employees who are disquieted by the conditions.

The prisoners are, too.

Cook said it is "degrading and dehumanizing to parade them through public hallways like so many tethered cattle."

A holding cell in the basement has benches where about 25 people can sit, but on most days there are 50 to 60 people awaiting court appearances.

The county lockup, also in the basement, is under a court order not to exceed 297 people. When it does, which is often, inmates must be set free.

A new processing facility being renovated at a nearby warehouse is expected to be completed in June. Officials hope it will ease lockup overcrowding.

Caseloads are rising

The task force said the reasons the courtrooms are running out of space is because caseloads have increased to about 240,000 a year.

The biggest obstacle will be finding the funding, however, especially in a recession.

City-County Council President Phil Borst said lawmakers aren't inclined to commit $100 million now.

"We aren't ready for that because we don't know what we need," Borst said. "I think it is a little early for that."

Borst said the courts should continue streamlining operations, as they have with the processing center, then see where they stand. He said one idea may be to have the Indianapolis Police Department move out of the east wing and let the courts take over that space.

"They may be looking at this backward," he said. "But state, local and county governments all have budget problems right now."

Meanwhile, the proximity of civilians to inmates continues, and many workers have just simply gotten used to it.

"It doesn't bother me at all," said Lynette Kincy, 35, a clerk in the clerk of courts office on the sixth floor, next to an elevator that carries prisoners. "There is no other way to get to court. Maybe they should have thought about that when they built this building."