Opinion and Forefront

BOEHM: Put justice facility back on the agenda

August 4, 2012

Ted BoehmThe mayor announced that the preferred site of a proposed transportation center will be the city-owned block of Washington Street between the City-County Building and the jail. I certainly support improving our public transport, and if a hub is a critical component of a good system, we should create one. And the proposed site may well be the best place for a transport hub.

That site is also a prime candidate for another needed facility. Planning to address that need should also resolve the decades of dithering over how best to address the many issues raised by the antiquated court facilities in the City-County Building.

In a nutshell, the problem is that the Circuit Court and 38 Superior Courts are housed in a building designed over 50 years ago for 16 courtrooms. The problem is not just the convenience of the courts. Those who are familiar with the issue are concerned that preventive measures will never be taken until a tragedy rallies public support, and we all look at one another and ask how we let this happen.

These courts handle all significant trials, including major crimes and sometimes violent domestic disputes. Two courtrooms were designed for major criminal trials, and feature a private elevator from an underground tunnel that connects the jail and the basement of the courts building.

But we have long since outgrown this secure facility. Today, criminal trials and emotion-laden domestic disputes are handled in various courtrooms on many different floors of the City-County Building. The public areas of the building were designed for witnesses, schoolchildren and the general public visiting other government agencies. These elevators and hallways are now routinely populated with inmates and frustrated litigants on their way to and from the courtrooms.

There are some economic issues as well as safety concerns. To make room for the added courtrooms, some of the larger public offices have been moved to rented commercial space in downtown office buildings.

This issue has long been festering. In 2002, a task force of the Indianapolis Bar Association attempted to launch a campaign to point out these serious public safety concerns. As a candidate for his first term in 2007, Mayor Ballard expressed support for a modern courts facility. So far, this idea continues to languish without much public attention.

If the transportation center is to be on the space between the jail and the City-County Building, it raises again the question whether the entire court complex should be somewhere else, and if so, where. And if the courts are to be moved, perhaps the jail should be also, because any move to a location remote from the jail involves additional transportation for court appearances, which raises both security and efficiency issues.

Nobody familiar with this problem seriously contends that the current court facilities are adequate. The issue is simply the cost of replacing or expanding them. Politicians are notoriously wary of supporting any form of public expenditure. But when it comes to major construction projects, the debate often gets sidetracked by the total cost of the project instead of the more relevant considerations of impact on the annual budget over a long time.

Hard economic times can be the best time to undertake projects. If it is inevitable that some major construction must occur in the foreseeable future, it will presumably be done by issuing long-term obligations, perhaps over 30 years. Interest is a large part of any such project, and funding it in a period of low long-term interest rates can save millions. At the same time, contractors are often willing to accept rock-bottom pricing to keep their teams together during economic downturns. And of course there is the collateral benefit of providing employment and business activity the construction generates.

This long-standing issue needs to be back on the public agenda.•

• Boehm is a retired Indiana Supreme Court justice who previously held senior corporate legal positions and helped launch amateur sports initiatives in Indianapolis. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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