September 20, 2004

Indianapolis Star article


10-year plan urges new courthouse, bigger staff

September 20, 2004
Today's report on mired Marion County courts comes as judges weigh '05 budget cuts.

Fixing Marion County's swamped court system will take higher pay, larger staffs and a new $250 million courthouse, according to recommendations in a report coming out today.

But the lofty goals of that 10-year plan, compiled by officials from two dozen state and local agencies, will debut just hours after judges consider how to confront a $1.9 million budget cut in 2005.

"That's part of the irony," Superior Court Judge Mark Stoner said. "At the same time we're talking about the future, we're going to be talking about how to deal with a very uncomfortable, unpleasant current situation."

During a 4 p.m. meeting of the Criminal Justice Planning Council, officials will unveil a 10-year prescription to salvage Marion County's justice system.

The consulting firm Crowe Chizek spent about a year gathering information and interviewing dozens of representatives from 24 local and state agencies to put together the 131-page study. The plan cost about $220,000, with $43,000 paid by Marion County and the rest with a grant from the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute.

The plan recommends boosting salaries, hiring more people and building a $250 million courthouse. It also calls for the county to develop better communication systems, better train workers and add courtrooms and staff to bring caseloads within national and state standards.

The initiative includes several phases, and improvements with no cost will begin right away. Many leading members of the City-County Council and other agencies were involved in developing the plans, so the proposals have broad support. How to pay for them remains uncertain.

"We need to re-establish our priorities," Judge Cale Bradford said. "The county just cut the court budget by $1.9 million and spent $600,000 on a site plan for a new football stadium. Unless that stadium has a correctional facility in the basement for adults and juveniles, that money could have been better spent."

In a separate meeting, the county's 32 Superior Court judges will convene at noon to discuss ways to deal with the cuts ordered for 2005 by the City-County Council. This is expected to include use of judicial mandates, which would force leaders to provide more money for whatever services the court deems necessary.

The budget cuts mean judges would use fewer interpreters for non-English speaking defendants, hire psychologists instead of psychiatrists to determine a defendant's competency and forgo remodeling vacant space in the City-County Building into a much needed courtroom.

Bradford, the leader of the three-judge panel that oversees the Superior Courts, has said he supports filing a judicial mandate if the budget is not increased. However, Bradford said last week that he is open to other options.

The judges last issued a mandate in 2000 for $2.2 million more in funding, which allowed the hiring of more court workers and probation officers.

Officials agree that the county's jail, law enforcement agencies and courts have been neglected for more than a generation.

"In the quest to be penny pinchers, we've underfunded criminal justice as Indianapolis has grown," Marion County Clerk Doris Anne Sadler said.

Mary Moriarty Adams, chairwoman of the council's Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee, said no one was spared in this year's budget cuts.

But the Democrat said a judicial mandate is premature because cost savings from Mayor Bart Peterson's plan to consolidate Indianapolis and Marion County governments next year could be used to help the courts. That proposal, dubbed "Indianapolis Works," must win the approval of state lawmakers.

"The courts can make this work," Moriarty Adams said. "We are willing to work with them, but they have to work with us."

By Vic Ryckaert
Indianapolis Star