Opinion and Editorials

EDITORIAL: Time is right for justice center

December 21, 2013

Finally, the city is talking seriously about consolidating the jumble of courts, jails and public offices that compose its criminal justice system and plunking them in a new facility—a sprawling blockhouse with an estimated cost of $200 million to $400 million.

Motivated by upcoming lease expirations in downtown office buildings, Mayor Ballard’s announcement Dec. 11 that he would push for the project is the right decision at an opportune time.

And a good opportunity to break with his secretive ways and open the process to the public.

The three intervening decades since the notion of a criminal justice center was first broached have not been kind to the system. Courts and jails have grown crowded, with public servants trying to prevent victims, witnesses and the accused from unexpectedly bumping into one another.

The system also is inefficient. Prisoners must be hauled back and forth from the jails to the courts, and prosecutors and public defenders toil in nearby office buildings, costing the city rent.

Meanwhile, the property beneath the jails has come into demand for redevelopment. The southeast quadrant of the downtown still has more than its share of parking lots and crummy buildings—in large part because few people and businesses want to locate close to jails. Remove the jails, and the private sector will come up with projects that bring the laggard area into visual and economic parity with the rest of downtown.

It’s apparent that this project is as necessary as the $754 million Eskenazi Health hospital that opened Dec. 7.

Ballard’s proposal for forging a public-private partnership with a developer that would build and maintain the facility holds potential for keeping costs in line. City officials have not decided where to put the facility, but say a location near Indianapolis International Airport might fit the bill.

It’s the details—or rather whether Ballard will raise the curtain on the details before a deal is done—that raise the greatest concern.

Nearly two years into his second term, Ballard has made too many big development decisions behind closed doors. Most recently, he announced a developer for the Market Square Arena site with little input from the public.

If Ballard and the City-County Council opt for a public-private partnership on the justice center, they can increase confidence in the decision by insisting on openness from beginning to end.

The Wishard hospital referendum passed in 2009 with a whopping 85-percent majority. Citizens are willing to spend on public facilities when it can be shown to make sense.

The need for a criminal justice complex is growing. Leases are expiring. Key downtown properties are ripe for redevelopment. Interest rates are low. Companies with expertise would likely be interested in helping.

Good for Ballard for showing leadership. For the sake of the best possible outcome, he needs to push ahead in the open.•

Send comments on this editorial to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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