November 23, 2002 Indiana Business Journal

Cramped courts
Task force should be beginning of effort to fix corrections problems

November 23, 2002
Marion County's cramped courts are another symptom of the increasingly difficult--and expensive--problems facing officials involved in the justice system and residents who pay for it. The county's bar associations have formed the Justice Center Task Force and on Nov. 25 were set to host a forum exploring problems and potential solutions. It should be the start of an intensive and coordinated campaign to thoroughly understand and solve the problems related to the courts--and the county's overcrowded jails, too.

When the City-County Building opened in 1963, the county had 16 courts. Now it has 32 and justice is just as likely meted out in old closets and the basement as in the Spartan rooms designated courts 40 years ago. Inmates often share elevators with the public and security concerns loom over the people's building.

A study commissioned by the Indianapolis Bar Association and the Marion County Bar Association indicate a new justice center would cost $100 million and require 700,000 square feet of space, more than twice the amount of space courts currently occupy in the City-County Building.

It's a hefty price tag and any final decisions are far on the horizon. But the discussion isn't without potential funding sources. Increased fees for traffic violations and other court costs could be enacted. A modest property tax of about $10 a year for a $75,000 house is another option.

Any discussion of new court space in the absence of how to fix the county's broken jail system, however, is wasted breath. And it's time for the court's leaders--the judges--to find new ways to make the courts more efficient, like case consolidation. The Justice Task Force is a good place to consolidate worthy efforts to reduce jail overcrowding and the overburdened courts.

For too long, efforts to reduce crime have focused only on arresting more people. Marion County's residents likely will see the wisdom and pay for an overhauled system, including new buildings. But it's up to Mayor Bart Peterson, Sheriff-elect Frank Anderson, the City-County Council and the judges to make the case, and that will happen only if they work through any differences in a constructive manner.