INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- Marion County’s 37 judges and approximately 75 judicial officers have been dispensing justice from a building constructed when John Kennedy was president, was overcrowded when Jimmy Carter was in the White House and might be abandoned before the current occupant leaves the Oval Office.
“This is a forty-year problem,” said Judge Mark Stoner of Marion Superior Court. “This isn’t something that is new. It is something that has been put off by various administrations.”
Stoner said his most recent review of a plan by Major Joe Hogsett to build a new community justice center complex to house a jail, courthouse, assessment facility and other agencies is the fourth time he’s sat down to evaluate a proposal to update Marion County’s pursuit of justice.
“This isn’t a totally done deal yet,” said Stoner. “We do want to go and we need a new complex but there are a lot of details that have to be worked out.”
Hogsett is proposing construction of a $565 million complex on the former Citizens Energy Coke Plant site east of Fountain Square on Prospect Street.
The jail would cost $365 million with the courthouse adding another $195 million to the final bill.
Hogsett promises he can build the complex without a tax increase by moving the courts from their current City County Building locations, renovating the space left behind and bringing several city agencies home to downtown from expensive privately owned buildings that charge $35 million a year in rent.
“There has been a commitment to build this without a tax increase,” said Stoner. “I don’t know if that is realistic or not to be honest. It seems to me that if you had to have a tax increase to build a football stadium and if you have to do things like build a hospital, to do something that is a fundamental function of government which is providing for the public safety that you ought not to take the tax increase totally off the board.”
The community justice center complex would be the most expensive city building project since the $750 million construction of Lucas Oil Stadium and the convention center expansion a decade ago.
“I want to thank the Marion County Circuit and Marion Superior Courts for their forward-thinking commitment to building an innovative, efficient and just criminal justice system,” wrote the mayor after the judges’ vote.
“In the weeks and months ahead,” City County Council President Maggie Lewis wrote, “I look forward to continue working alongside my colleagues as we make Indianapolis a model for others.”
It’s the questions and answers that will be explored in those weeks and months to come that has Marion County’s judges worried and keeps them from offering unqualified support for the project according to Stoner.
“We’re going have to be real specific about what the new facility would look like in terms in the numbers of courtrooms, the size of the courtrooms, the configuration of the courtrooms,” said Stoner. “No question, there are going to be new security issues we never faced in 1962.
“Under the law we have to separate the juvenile from the adult world in terms of the detention center but we also have to be careful not to intermix victims and defendants and families that are at odds with each other.”
Judges from Circuit, Superior, Civil and Juvenile courts have agreed conditionally to make the move depending on security, site specification, cost and construction timetable commitments.
“Probation, Community Corrections, Guardian ad litem, Child In Need of Services proceedings, all of those are incredibly important functions to the court,” said Stoner. “If we build a new facility and don’t provide significant upgrades in those areas we’ll be making the same mistakes we’ve been making for the last forty years.”
Stoner said location of the courts near the new jail facilities would drastically reduce offender transportation costs and security issues and improve delivery of counseling services mandated by family and problem-solving courts that seek solutions short of criminal prosecution.
Video conferencing, temporary courtroom expansion and adding more major felony courtrooms would improve efficiency, said Stoner who expects judges will withhold their final approval until construction and financing issues are resolved next spring.