November 16, 2002 Indiana Business Journal


New home for courts focus of campaign Legal leaders will argue case for judicial center

November 16, 2002
Inmates sharing elevators with the public as they head to trial and judges conducting hearings in makeshift courtrooms are scenes that have become all too common at the City-County Building.

The space and safety concerns of the 40-year-old downtown tower have become a rallying cry for supporters of a new judicial center to house Marion County's 32 courts. In 1963, when the City-County Building opened, the county had 16 courts.

Today, former office space has been converted to accommodate 12 courts, a handful of others are in the basement in what once was storage space, and some magistrates and commissioners share courtrooms.

"When you walk into what once was an office and you have a jury-rigged bench for the judge to sit [on], it takes away the sense of dignity and it lessens the proceeding," Court Administrator Mark Renner said.

The need for a separate judicial center has been discussed by city and legal leaders the past few years. But the Indianapolis and Marion County bar associations have organized a joint task force to bring the issue to the forefront.

The IBA and the MCBA, the county's minority bar association, formed the Justice Center Task Force earlier this year and will launch their Campaign for a Safe and Adequate Justice Center at a Nov. 25 forum. Elected officials have been invited.

The bar associations already have commissioned a study indicating a justice center would cost at least $100 million and measure 700,000 square feet. Court personnel are crammed into 300,000 square feet at the City-County Building.

Supporters of a new center point to city-owned properties, such as a parking lot across the street from the City-County Building on East Washington Street and the old Indiana State Museum at the corner of Ohio and Alabama streets, as possible locations.

"There are already tunnels under Washington Street to transport prisoners from the jail [to the City-County Building]," Marion Superior Court Judge Cynthia Ayers said. "Or the Indiana State Museum could serve as the administrative part of the operations and the courts and jury rooms could be built near it."

To fund the construction, the task force recommends a 0.013-percent property tax increase that would cost homeowners with a $75,000 home about $10 per year, or higher court fees and traffic-violation fines.

Ayers is optimistic a judicial center can be constructed within seven years. But more pressing needs are taking precedence.

The Marion County Lockup, a short-stay facility, consistently exceeds a federal cap of 297 prisoners. And the jail routinely holds more than 1,500 prisoners, 200 over capacity. The county has enough money for another 100 jail beds that'll be available in January and the construction of a high-tech processing center has been authorized.

"There is no question the courts have a space problem," said City Attorney Scott Chinn, who serves on the bar associations' task force. "The challenge is, how do you remedy those issues in the context of the larger criminal justice fixes that everyone agrees we need?"

The Marion County Prosecutor's Office will move next month to its new home at 251 E. Ohio St., just steps from the City-County Building. That will consolidate four office branches and free up 21,500 square feet in the City-County Building. The Indianapolis Police Department, which occupies almost the entire east wing, also is looking to leave.

If IPD moves, its former space might be an option for the court system, City-County Council President Phil Borst said.

"We first need to figure out what we need, and I don't think [the judges] know what they need," Borst said. "We have to address these things, but we can't go off and do them willy-nilly without any planning."

The task force will argue its case for a new judicial building by pointing out that the City-County Building was intended to be office space, not a courthouse. In 1960, the Indianapolis' population was 697,000, compared with 860,000 today, according to the task force. The swell has brought 240,000 new case filings each year, including almost 40,000 criminal cases, according to the task force.

The rise in crime is evident by the crowded holding cells where inmates await hearings. Up to 50 prisoners are packed in at a time, making it difficult for defense lawyers to speak with clients. Often, conversations are conducted through bars. Sometimes, fights break out among prisoners.

"This has nothing to do with nice digs for judges," said IBA President John Maley, a partner at Barnes & Thornburg. "It has everything to do with safety. It is simply an inadequate facility for the state's largest justice system."

Scott Olson
IBJ Reporter