District judge proposes new justice center next to HC jail

Addition could increase security, generate revenue

By FAITH HUFFMAN | News-Telegram News Editor

Dec. 16, 2007 - Eighth Judicial District Judge Robert Newsom this week asked Hopkins County commissioners to consider building a new justice center next to the county jail, a move he believes would increase courtroom security and generate additional revenue for the county.

The judge also made the suggestion out of concern over costs associated with planned renovations for the Fidelity Express Building, purchased by the county in May to become a new courthouse annex.

Hopkins County elected officials signed the paperwork to purchase the two Fidelity Express buildings located at 128 Jefferson St. Certificates of obligation were sold by the county for just under $3 million to cover the $1.3 million purchase price, as well as renovations.

Plans called for the buildings, located about halfway between the county jail and courthouse, to house two courtrooms and jury rooms, as well as the district and county clerks' offices. Inmates would be walked across the lot south of the jail and across Jefferson Street to the facility for court appearances.

But the district judge is concerned about the public's exposure to criminal offenders.

Newsom, who was a police officer and county attorney before being elected to the judgeship in 1997, said the criminal element in the county has changed in recent decades, with more cases involving more dangerous offenses being tried. In the judge's view, more and more involve people from other cities involved in such activities as gangs and violence, whereas the majority of cases in the past involved less serious offenses by local offenders.

The volume of these cases contribute to keeping the jail filled at or close to capacity, as well as fill the court docket, so more space and security are needed.

Newsom asked that the commissioners take those issues into consideration when continuing with plans for facilities expansion.

He expressed concern that the public will continue to be exposed to the inmates, both in the courtroom and while being transported. He believes current floor plan for renovations in the Fidelity Building would unnecessarily expose the public to inmates, as well as pose a security risk to clerks. There is also a flight risk while inmates are in transit.

Hopkins County Judge Cletis Millsap cited measures for security that have been taken at the courthouse, including hiring of two security officers, installation of two monitoring cameras and new door locks, and the use of law enforcement officers in courtrooms. He said that those and other measures were planned for the Fidelity Express building.

But Newsom also has concerns about removing deputies from their usual patrol duties to transport inmates to and from court, as well as having deputies or jailers monitor the inmates during court sessions. 

�Taking inmates from the jail and transporting them anywhere is a security challenge,� Newsom said. "It takes deputies off the street."

Security officers and deputies alike have reported that despite the security measures, contraband has been found at the courthouse in places such as restrooms and under seat cushions.

Newsom also has questions about the cost to renovate the Fidelity Express building, and whether it would continue to meet the office space needs of the county throughout the period to repay the certificates of obligation, or if additional space would be needed before the renovation debt is paid off.

He suggested the alternative of building a justice center adjacent to the Hopkins County jail, using a similar project in Franklin County as an example.

"I understand their (commissioners') concerns that there’s not enough money to build a jail and justice center," Newsom said. "The system Franklin County has works well. For security and cost purposes I ask that you consider building next to the jail."

The addition could also include more jail cells.

"Hence, a new annex would be a savings to the public,” Newsom said.

At the district judge's request, Franklin County Sheriff Chuck White talked about the justice center annex in his county and how they were able afford to do it at a reduced rate. He said the project was not only cost-efficient because inmate labor was utilized where possible, but also because Franklin County used a contract manager and bid the jobs out themselves instead of hiring someone to do it for them.

The justice center houses administrative offices, too, but it also expanded jail space enough to house an increasing inmate population — and generated additional revenue by adding extra cells to house inmates for other agencies.

The jail expansion pays for itself through fees charged for housing state and federal inmates, which means tax dollars that would have gone toward debt payment are still in the budget for other needs, the sheriff said.

Franklin County first built a small jail addition in 1993 and added extra beds to house inmates for other agencies. The 24 beds extra brought in $350,000 over a period of time.

Later, Franklin County approved an addition to accommodate overflow of office space at the courthouse and add 56 beds to the jail to accommodate the overflow from the backlog of inmates from county jails and other places waiting to go to state jail or prison. The recent administrative and jail expansion in Franklin County brings in $70,000 to $75,000 a month from about 50 out-of-county inmates. Despite the approximately 35  percent increase in operating costs, it still brings in a nice profit and pays the note for the jail expansion, White noted.

The Franklin County center was built in such a way that the inmates are walked from the jail through a secured area to the courtroom, limiting potential threats to the public and flight risks, White explained. Another advantage is that, should an incident occur, the response time for officers to reach the courtroom is considerably reduced, White said.

�When we first knew we could do it, it was hard to ask [elected officials] to spend that much on �what if," White said. "There is the question of �what if we build it and aren�t able to get prisoners?�"

But the concept works,” White said, noting that as he was readying to leave for the meeting in Hopkins County, received a call asking if Franklin County jail could accommodate a large number of federal inmates. He had to turn them because his jail didn’t have enough space. The Franklin County facility was already housing a large number of out-of-town inmates.

Newsom's pitch was for an 18,328 square foot justice center annex by Hopkins County jail, with extra cells to generate revenue from out-of-county inmates. He said constructing it should help with security issues, cost less to build than the proposed Fidelity Express renovations, and would help pay for itself.

Hopkins County Judge Millsap said he and commissioners are “concerned about the systems” and “will continue to take any suggestions and thoughts” on the matter.

But Millsap also said it is his feeling the commissioners court will opt to continue with the Fidelity Express project. The court has already been working with an architectural firm on plans to renovate the Fidelity Building, and if the county were to construct a justice center annex by the jail as suggested, a bond election would have to be called. Millsap anticipates the county will “look to tighten the belt and continue with the means we have.”

Whatever the commissioners do, Newsom said, he'll support their decision.

�I just wanted known my thoughts on the matter," he said. "If they take steps to go ahead with the building and renovations, that�s 15 to 20 years we�ll be tied to that. I hope we can fine a way to build with [enhanced] security.�

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