City inviting proposals for new courts-jail complex

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A massive new criminal justice complex for Marion County would require at least 35 acres of land, add 1,000 new jail beds and as many as 30 courtrooms, and could even house state and federal offices.

Mayor Greg Ballard and other city leaders outlined the ambitious project as a way to solve decades of court and jail overcrowding Wednesday morning at a meeting of the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee.

But leaders were short on details on how to finance the complex that, based on its scope, could well cost $200 million to $400 million and possibly be financed through a public-private partnership.

Nor would they elaborate on a possible location outside of downtown. Even a spot near Indianapolis International Airport could fit the bill, officials said.

“There are a number of sites around town that appear to make sense,” Ballard said.

What’s needed for the complex is interstate access, public transit connections and room to grow, said David Rosenberg, Ballard’s director of enterprise development.

Rosenberg said the city plans to issue requests for qualifications on Dec. 20 and begin evaluating proposals from private developers in February. A final proposal would be presented to the City-County Council for a vote next September, with construction beginning in early 2015.

But such a massive project would have to overcome probable political hurdles, including potentially controversial financing plans.

One concept the Ballard administration has studied is the potential for a private partner to obtain financing and to lease the facility back to the city for a period of decades – or various twists on that theme.

Ballard declined to elaborate, saying he wanted to see what kind of proposals the city receives.

“We think that [public-private partnership] gives us more cost effectiveness … without raising taxes,” he said.
Rosenberg said a public-private partnership “we think would be the preferred delivery model.”

Nearly a dozen studies have been made in the last 35 years about the feasibility of constructing a new courts and jail complex, Ballard said.  But one impetus to act now is the upcoming expiration of leases involving a number of criminal justice facilities around the city, Ballard said.

Also opportune: the low interest-rate environment, said Marion County Superior Court Judge David Certo.

A new criminal justice facility would likely be a boon to the local construction industry – and to politician coffers. The city has seen a flurry of big dollar projects in recent years, from the new airport terminal to Lucas Oil Stadium to the recently completed replacement for Wishard Hospital – the Eskenazi Health campus.

The criminal justice complex would be massive, based on preliminary plans advanced by city leaders. It could entail adult jail and inmate processing, a juvenile jail and criminal courts. It would house the prosecutor, public defender and community corrections offices.

There also would be room for clerks' and coroners' offices along with crime labs and possibly space for state and federal agencies.

Marion County Sheriff John Layton said the facility could bring substantial efficiencies through the use of new technology and architecture—reducing manpower needs.
Co-locating courts and jails also would eliminate the cost of shuttling prisoners by vehicle.

Certo said he looks forward to eliminating court overcrowding and the problematic mix of defendants, witnesses and jurors in close confines.

“This project gives us an enormous opportunity to take a better look at how to deliver services, including those for the mentally ill inmates,” Certo said.

Ballard said the net effect of a new, centralized complex would be long-term cost savings to taxpayers, though he declined to quantify the savings.

Transferring old city buildings to private use would generate some degree of additional revenue. The city’s Jail 1, Jail 2 and Community Corrections buildings sit atop land recently valued at $17.6 million, the city said.

Those facilities are near east-side locations such as the new Artistry residential project, Angie’s List and the former Market Square Arena site, the mayor said. “We anticipate a lot of interest by the private sector.”

Aaron Renn, an urban policy analyst who publishes the popular Urbanophile blog, said there’s an upside to transferring criminal justice operations to a new location.

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 need good transit connections," he said.

The current advantage of downtown jails, and criminal courts in the 28-story City-County Building, which opened in 1963, is their central location. While that building initially housed 16 courts, there are now 38 courts in the immediate vicinity.

But relocating the current courts and jails could have short-term 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, said 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.

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.

Few will disagree that the city needs more shoulder room for its courts and jails. Layton recited a litany of problems, starting after Jail 1 was built in 1965. By 1972, it was deemed overcrowded. Lawsuits and court intervention ensued.

In 1996, old warehouse and manufacturing space was converted into Jail II. About 70,000 inmates move through the City-County Building each year, plus more than 500,000 citizens, jurors, victims and witnesses. An additional 1,000 beds would make room for about 3,400 inmates at one time.  

 “Delayed justice is expensive, and an expense we cannot afford anymore,” Layton said.

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