November 26, 2002 Indianapolis Star

Lawyers groups lobby for new court building Current conditions are 'disaster waiting to happen,' judge tells 100 at forum.

November 26, 2002
Lawyer groups say the cramped conditions among the 32 courts in the City-County Building are unsafe, unjust and undignified.

And they are urging Mayor Bart Peterson and the City-County Council to build a new courthouse with an estimated $100 million price tag.

"We are a disaster waiting to happen," Marion Superior Court Judge Cynthia Ayers told about 100 people attending Monday's lunchtime forum, an event designed to generate support for the project.

City-County Council President Phil Borst said lawmakers aren't inclined to support such a big project. He said the courts must continue to streamline their operations.

As an alternative to a new courthouse, Borst renewed an idea that stalled more than a year ago to move the Indianapolis Police Department out of the east wing of the City-County Building and let the courts take over.

The county's 32 courts are crammed into a building designed to hold about half that, said Ayers, the county's presiding judge.

The space crunch means shackled lines of prisoners move through halls alongside witnesses, jurors and members of the public.

Ayers said the threat of a prisoner-hostage situation is real and the consequences would be devastating.

The Indianapolis and Marion County bar associations reported the county could save about $2 million a year in rent by moving city agencies to space vacated by the courts.

The groups also said the county could make up the funding difference by increasing traffic ticket fines, court fees and raising the property tax rate in a way that would add about $10 to the annual tax bill of a $75,000 home.

Council member Rozelle Boyd said the problem has been festering for more than a decade and solving it is going to take political courage.

"There have been several false starts in terms of addressing the problems," he said.

But finding $100 million in a county that has had to struggle to give pay raises to its employees is going to be a challenge, critics say.

Scott Chin, the city's lawyer, said there are a lot of problems in the county's criminal justice system that must be addressed, among them are jail crowding and a shortage of probation officers.

"We cannot consider the court space issues in a vacuum," Chin said. "Let's let the policy makers rank things in terms of priority and come up with potential solutions."

Vic Ryckaert