EDITORIAL: Don’t isolate heart of criminal justice

February 15, 2014

Most everyone agrees that a core function of government is justice—to accurately determine guilt or innocence of the accused and to carry out appropriate punishment.

Justice cannot be separated from the soul of government.

It is within this context that the Ballard administration leans toward moving the criminal courts and jails—along with offices for prosecutors, public defenders, probation and other functions tied to the system—to Indianapolis International Airport. Psychologically, that’s a nation away from the downtown heartbeat of the city.

Mayor Greg Ballard’s administration is laying few cards on the table out of concern, it says, for keeping the process competitive for developers that likely would handle the project in a public-private arrangement.

Mayoral aides, though, already are making a spreadsheet-centric case for the airport as the least expensive approach.

From the time Ballard and other officials announced in December their intent to build the long-discussed center, the administration has emphasized efficiency and downplayed the likely fallout of empty downtown offices and the greater difficulty of traveling to the facility.

We’re not yet convinced the city is on the right track.

Have all of the more conventional solutions that would keep justice services centrally located downtown been fully vetted? Are the potential cost savings of building at the airport significant enough to outweigh the inconvenience of the location for many Marion County residents and attorneys?

The airport site emerged as the recommended location in a market study, but that study considered only one downtown site—the former General Motors stamping plant.

To be sure, downtown projects are inherently trickier. So the allure of a development-ready site at the airport is understandable.

In addition to having more than enough land to accommodate the proposed 35-acre development, it has utilities and easy highway access, and it wouldn’t need to be purchased by the city and then taken off the tax rolls. There is room aplenty for expansion.

Couple those advantages with the efficiencies of consolidating the jails, and the administration thinks it can pull off the project without raising taxes.

Some residents wish the system and its grit a hearty farewell. They are also are mindful that civil courts and other government functions—functions often considered more savory—would remain downtown.

But residents should think hard about this.

As respected urban-design blogger Aaron Renn points out, the city would shift hundreds of people near another county that would like nothing more than to attract every possible dollar of their disposable income. The distance also will make it harder for people to access the system no matter how well bus lines might be improved.

Topping the list of reasons to keep the building downtown, though, is the symbolic value of retaining the gears of justice in the literal and figurative center of the city. Because it’s a core function of government.•


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