Indianapolis Star Editorial

Justice Served? Building New Courts Center May Help

November 27, 2005
Our position: Plan to build criminal justice center should move forward along with a broader discussion of how to fix broken public safety system.

John Maley calls 200 E. Washington St. the most dangerous block in the city.

"The reality is someone is going to die in the building,'' says Maley. The former president of the Indianapolis Bar Association and partner in the Barnes & Thornburg law firm is talking about Indianapolis' City-County Building, home to not only criminal courts but also government offices that handle everything from handing out marriage licenses to collecting tax payments.

About 700 emergencies are reported each year in the building. More than 500 people are arrested. Chain gangs of jail inmates shuffle past jurors, witnesses and the general public in the building's hallways. Inmates even pass by a child-care center on their way to court.

Maley and current Bar President John Kautzman argue that the building's inadequacies pose an even broader risk to public safety, contributing to the early release of thousands of jail inmates because the court system lacks enough space and judicial officers to efficiently handle the caseload.

Inmates released early, at least in part because of a federal court order to reduce jail overcrowding, have been accused of six murders in the past four years. Prosecutors and police also attribute the county's increase in violent and property crimes this year to the early release of prisoners.

On Monday [November 28, 2005], a Bar Association task force will ask the Marion County Criminal Justice Planning Council, a group that includes most of the key players in public safety, to support a resolution that would begin movement toward a new criminal courts building. If approved, the resolution would ask the City-County Council to charge a committee with planning for the design, location and financing of a new criminal justice center.

What's the cost? Between $100 million and $200 million, depending on whether a new jail, an arrestee processing center and other services are included in the facility. Debt service on the high end would be about $12 million a year; the money could come from an already approved increase in the county option income tax.

Money also could be freed up by returning civil courts and other government agencies to space in the City-County Building that would become vacant after the criminal courts exit. Those agencies are now paying rent in other buildings.

At least three studies in the past 15 years have made the case for a larger, more up-to-date courts building. The need for new courts really isn't much in question.

But it's worth debating whether the next major step in fixing Marion County's broken criminal justice system is toward building a new courthouse and jail. Or whether for now the emphasis should be on finding money to retain Indianapolis Police Department officers and add sheriff's deputies.

More courts also will require more judges, prosecutors and public defenders. While a good argument can be made for adding to the ranks in each of those positions, the annual cost of salaries has to be considered in the context of already tight city and county budgets.

Yet, John Kautzman is right when he argues that "there isn't anything more pressing than the criminal justice system right now."

What should the Criminal Justice Planning Council do Monday? In many ways, the Bar Association is offering a modest proposal, seeking only to move to the planning stage of a new criminal justice center. Final decisions wouldn't be made until later, when more information is available.

The cost of putting together such a plan is estimated at $200,000, a sound investment in helping determine the specifics of a new courthouse and jail.

It's reasonable then for the planning council to ask the City-County Council to begin drawing up the details of a new facility.

In the meantime, however, a broader discussion needs to develop about how best to meet Indianapolis' growing needs for public safety.

The courts are crowded. The jail is short on space. Too few deputies patrol county roads. IPD officers are losing their jobs. And, above it all, crime is on the rise.

No issue is more pressing. No need more important. It's time for bold and creative steps forward.