Mayor champions plan to relocate justice center

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard and Marion County court and law enforcement leaders on Wednesday morning expect to announce plans for a new criminal justice complex.

The idea has been batted around at least as far back as 1991 in response to increased crowding in limited space for courts at the City-County Building, as well as overpopulation in the Marion County Jail and the privately run Jail II at 730 E. Washington St..

Such a facility, which could be located outside of downtown proper, could cost upwards of $200 million. Details of Ballard's plan are still unclear, but the complex could include criminal courts, jail facilities, the Marion County prosecutor's office and related agencies.

The 28-story City County Building opened in 1962 at the southeast corner of Delaware and Market streets. Ballard's plan could consolidate criminal justice operations from other areas of the city as well.

Ballard officials in recent weeks have signaled the mayor has been exploring financing the project without raising taxes, but rather through an arrangement with a private developer. The city then could lease the facility for a period of decades before taking ownership.

“I think it’s a valid concept, and it needs to be studied carefully,” said criminal defense attorney John Kautzman, who co-chairs the Justice Center Task Force at the Indianapolis Bar Association. The task force lobbied for building a new justice center as early as 2002.

Relocating the current courts and jails could have repercussion for downtown. Hundreds of lawyers, bail bondsmen and other justice-related workers are clustered near the City-County Building. Such populations have helped downtowns thrive, Kautzman said.

Downtown's bond agents likely would move closer to a relocated facility, said Jim Degan, president of the Indiana Surety Bail Agents Association. That would give bond firms a chance to present a more professional appearance than their weathered and neon-dominated facades, he said.

Aaron Renn, an urban policy analyst who publishes the popular Urbanophile blog, said there’s an upside to transferring criminal justice operations to a privately owned facility: The new development would generate tax revenue for the city.

Renn pointed out that neither Chicago nor New York City’s jails are located in their downtown commercial districts. The 96-acre Cook County Jail, for example, is southwest of downtown Chicago, in a neighborhood with shops and restaurants that benefit from jail-related traffic.

Moving Marion County’s justice center complex to a brownfield or otherwise vacant industrial site—for example, to the former General Motors stamping plant southwest of downtown—would inject money into those local neighborhoods as well, Renn said.

To make it work, Renn suggested direct transit routes from downtown to such a site, which would allow low-income residents access. “You’d [just] need good transit connections," he said.

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