“This is a time bomb” by Lee Hermiston

Iowa City Press-Citizen

July 14, 2012

Reach Lee Hermiston at 887-5413 or lhermiston@press-citizen.com.

Over the past two years, the county has spent nearly $500,000 to refurbish the exterior of the Johnson County Courthouse by cleaning the brick mortar and installing new steps.

The interior is a different story. The building has no metal detectors, sinking floors and jail inmates often share public spaces with courthouse visitors, issues that officials say pose serious safety risks to the public and to courthouse employees.

Because of those and other deficiencies, county officials and local attorneys say the need for a new justice center is dire and have proposed building a new, $48.1 million building adjacent to the courthouse. On Nov. 6, county voters will decide whether to approve a $46.8 million bond referendum that will pay for the majority of the proposed center.

“I think that when it comes to safety and security, it has issues,” Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said of the courthouse. “We’ve just been lucky that we haven’t had a serious incident. That we haven’t had one here, I just view us as being lucky.”

An overview

The building’s issues start with the main entrance. While the stairs leading to the front entrance are nearly brand new, the same cannot be said for the entrance itself. The tiled floor is buckled and sinking. Anyone who uses a wheelchair cannot use this entrance because it leads to more stairs that go up to the clerk of court’s office or down to the county attorney’s office. There is no metal detector to prevent visitors from carrying weapons into the building.

The rear entrance is not much of an improvement, though visitors using this entrance often go undetected because it bypasses the second floor deputy station and rarely is used. A narrow hallway leads to a similarly narrow staircase that exits on the third floor and a stone’s throw from courtrooms and judges’ chambers, which also are unsecure.

Visitors using the building’s lone elevator might share it with an inmate, dressed in an orange jail jumpsuit and shackles, on his or her way to a hearing.

The third floor frequently is crowded with defendants awaiting court appearances, families finalizing adoptions and court staff and lawyers meeting with clients in the stairwell — all with no privacy.

The third floor also is sinking in the southwest corner near the Clerk of Court’s office.

Throughout the building, desks, hallways and other available spaces are jam-packed with files.

Officials advocating for the justice center — Pulkrabek, Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness, county supervisors and others — say the county has been fortunate that no one has been hurt by a disgruntled visitor or even a simple crack in the staircase.

“This is a time bomb,” local attorney James McCarragher said. “We’ve been lucky. At some point, we’re not going to be lucky.”

After focusing on jail overcrowding and the $1 million spent annually to house inmates outside of the county, justice center proponents are now turning their attention to the many deficiencies at the courthouse in hopes of educating the public about the problems there.

Officials say unless a member of the public has served on a jury or has had other business at the courthouse, they probably are unaware of the building’s issues.

“We really do need to get the education out to the general public,” Lyness said. “We need to do a good job of letting people know what the advantages would be of having the justice center and the problems now.”

Officials say the problems the courthouse faces fall in four categories: Security, safety, privacy and space.

Security

A metal detector pushed against a wall collects dust on the first floor of the courthouse.

The main entrance is too wide and inaccessible for those using wheelchairs, making installation of a metal detector impossible. The rear entrance is too narrow.

Instead, security is provided by two Johnson County sheriff’s deputies who look out for suspicious activities and bring a “calming presence” to the courthouse, Pulkrabek said. However, other responsibilities may take them away from their station on the second floor, where they monitor courthouse activity via security cameras.

Even the deputies — who are armed — are limited in what they can do to detect a threat, Pulkrabek said.

“Unfortunately, what they’re not able to do is distinguish whether anybody is carrying weapons in and out of there,” he said.

Pulkrabek and others are concerned about the rear staircase, which officials fear could provide a quick escape route from the courthouse or easy access to judge’s chambers.

The potential for violence often is at the back of Sixth Judicial District Judge Douglas Russell’s mind, he said this week.

Additionally, the antiquated courthouse has almost no means of separating criminal defendants or jail inmates from the general public. Inmates use the same hallways and elevator as the general public. In the courtroom, jurors are mere feet from defendants.

“There is really no physical barrier between the public and criminal defendants,” Russell said. “That’s a real problem for the security of the public and security of court personnel.”

The lack of separation between criminal defendants and the public hits close to home for Lyness.

In 2001, Lyness sat in Courtroom 3B, finalizing the adoption of her daughter.

Across the hall in courtroom 3A, Jonathan Memmer was on trial for the murder of two young women.

Lyness said other attorneys have reported similar circumstances.

Safety

Safety issues at the courthouse also affect Lyness’ staff.

A paralegal in the county attorney’s office uses a wheelchair, meaning she can only enter and exit the courthouse from the rear doors — the same used for inmate transfers. Additionally, a section of the county attorney’s office is down a short flight of stairs and completely inaccessible to the paralegal.

Lyness said she also worries about her employee’s ability to safely exit the courthouse in an emergency, given the single elevator.

“It’s a big concern,” she said. “Not only does it limit what she can do during the day, it’s just not right.”

None of the courtrooms has a jury area or witness stand accessible to those who use wheelchairs.

Lyness said options exist to remedy the entrance problem, such as building a new, ADA-compliant entrance on the south side of the courthouse. However, she said the project would be costly and would take space from other uses, which Lyness said already is severely lacking.

In several places throughout the building, old wooden floors have bowed and sank, including a 14-by-18-foot area in the rear corner of the clerk of court’s office.

“When you walk, you can trip if you’re not aware of it,” Clerk of Court Lodema Berkley said.

Berkley, Lyness, Russell and others have expressed concerns for the safety of their staff, courthouse personnel and visitors in the event a belligerent person becomes violent.

“It’s very helpful that we have two deputies in the building,” Lyness said. “However, they can’t be everywhere.”

Space

When the portion of the floor in the clerk’s office sank several years ago, then Board of Supervisors Chairman Pat Harney told Berkley she had to move the files stored nearby.

There was just one problem.

“There’s nowhere to put them,” Berkley said.

The clerk’s office has run out of space, Berkley said. Legal files going back 18 months are kept in the clerk’s office, but all older files are stored at three locations off site. Berkley said clerks make trips to the storage sites twice a week to pull files for attorneys.

The County Attorney’s Office faces a similar issue. Only files dating back to 2010 can be stored in the office. Virtually every employee has stacks of files on their desks and any available counter space.

The courthouse has six courtrooms, one of which cannot accommodate a jury. Lyness said that because of Johnson County’s growing population, another judge probably could be added, but without a courtroom for him or her to work, that won’t happen.

The lack of space has implications for the public, as well.

“Because of a lack of space, cases are getting continued and extended out,” Pulkrabek said. “I think it limits people’s ability to have their day in court.”

Pulkrabek said those delays have a “trickle-down effect” at the jail as well, with defendants spending longer periods of time waiting for court hearings and trials.

Privacy

Space isn’t just at a premium for files, it’s a premium for people, too.

“The bottom line is the courthouse is very small,” said Peter Persaud, chief of the Iowa City Public Defender’s Office. “It wasn’t built to accommodate the sheer number of people moving in and out.”

The courthouse has no dedicated meeting spaces for attorneys and clients, families or witnesses. Attorneys must meet with their clients wherever they can — outdoors if the weather permits, in an empty courtroom or on the main staircase landing.

The primary victim of this setup is attorney-client confidentiality.

“The jurors, when there’s a break, are all over the place,” Persaud said. “You don’t know who is a juror except for a little button they wear. They’re constantly walking by. If there are multiple trials, it becomes very difficult to talk to anyone about any one of your cases because potentially any one of these people could be a juror in a trial or one of your colleague’s trials.”

Not alone

Other courthouses in Iowa face similar issues.

The Cerro Gordo County Courthouse in Mason City is an old Standard Oil Building that was retrofitted into a courthouse in 1958, Sheriff Kevin Pals said. Like Johnson County, the Cerro Gordo County Courthouse has security issues, such as the lack of a stationary metal detector or dedicated entrances and corridors for inmate transfer.

“That’s very common around the state of Iowa,” Pals said. “They weren’t built for modern-day criminals. They just weren’t.”

Four and a half years ago, Cerro Gordo County built a law enforcement center on the west edge of Mason City. In addition to a jail and sheriff’s office, the complex also has one courtroom. However, Pals said attorneys are hesitant to use it because they think clients won’t get a fair trial.

“We thought it was safer to have trials in our own building,” he said.

On the other hand, the Black Hawk County Courthouse in Waterloo — built in the 1960s — has a higher level of security.

Sheriff Tony Thompson said a private security firm has three to four employees stationed at the courthouse. All visitors enter through a single, secure entrance and pass through a metal detector. Belongings are scanned by an X-ray machine similar to those used in airports.

Thompson said inmates are transferred through secure corridors and only briefly cross into public areas.

“I would assume that several counties likely don’t have the ability or infrastructure to support what we were able to do here in Black Hawk County,” he said.

Solutions

Proponents of the justice center say many of the flaws with the current courthouse would be addressed by the new building.

* All visitors would enter through a secure, ADA-compliant entrance, passing through a metal detector.

* Six courtrooms in addition to the three that still would be used in the old courthouse would mean fewer scheduling issues and delays in court dates.

* Meeting space would allow for larger meetings and for additional jail diversion programs because those programs could take place in the new building.

* Private meeting rooms adjacent to the new courtrooms would allow attorneys to meet privately with their clients.

* Inmates would be transported from the adjacent jail to courtrooms via secure corridors and elevators.

* Additional storage space would be built into the center.

* Overcrowding at the current jail would be addressed by a new, 243-bed jail.

“I think the public really needs improvements in all of these areas,” Russell said. “This building is designed to take us well into the 21st century. We expect the new justice center to go a good way down the road, decades down the road, and meet the needs of the public.”

Ballot Language

On Nov. 6, Johnson County voters will be asked whether to approve a $46.8 million bond issue to fund a new justice center.

The ballot language will read: “Shall the County of Johnson, State of Iowa, issue its general obligation bonds in an amount not exceeding the amount of $46,800,000 for the purpose of erecting and equipping a County Justice Center, to solve current safety, security and space needs of the Sheriff, jail and court operations, in a structure to be located adjacent to and incorporating the existing historic courthouse?”

Details

* Johnson County population

in 1900, the year before the courthouse was built: 24,817.

* Johnson County population in 2010: 130,882.

* The proposed justice center would include a 243-bed jail and six new courtrooms. Three of the courtrooms in the current courthouse would still be used.

problems cited

at Courthouse

ADA issues

Many areas of the building are not ADA compliant.

Lacking privacy

Not enough private meeting areas for attorneys and clients.

Security concerns

The front entrance is not secured or ADA compliant.

Unattended entrance

The rear entrance must remained unlocked for emergencies, but poses a threat since no deputies are stationed there.

One elevator

There is only one elevator, which is used by staff, visitors and inmates.

 

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