Solicitor urges York County leaders to expand courts

Solicitor says judicial system is swamped

adouglas@heraldonline.comJanuary 8, 2013 

York County’s growth rate and a spike in criminal activity have resulted in more cases than existing courtrooms can handle, Kevin Brackett, the county’s solicitor, told elected officials on Tuesday night.

He told the York County Council that the county needs to spend money to expand the court facilities at the Moss Justice Center and to provide more office space for the solicitor’s team.

The amount of criminal arrest warrants filed in the county, Brackett said, has increased by 50 percent in one decade between 2000 and 2010.

Moss Justice Center courtrooms and offices have not been altered or expanded since 1994. The county has added a new prison facility on the 20-acre lot.

Council members met Tuesday night to discuss budget priorities and ways to pay for future county projects. An expansion of the justice center is needed within the next five years, Brackett said, and should be considered immediately in order to avoid a public safety problem.

“We’re just packed in there,” he said. “And we have made the best use of the space we have. We need to start planning now to accommodate for the growth that’s going to continue to come.”

Voters were asked to pass a bond referendum prior to the recession a few years ago to allow the county to borrow money to pay for an expansion of court facilities at the justice center. The referendum failed.

During tight economic times starting in 2006 and 2007, Brackett said, he didn’t feel comfortable asking the council to spend money on construction.

“But we can’t wait any longer,” he said. “We’re going to have to come up with a plan to accommodate for this growth.”

If criminal cases can’t move through the court fast enough, Brackett said, people accused of crimes may make bond in order to get out of jail and stay “on the street” for longer periods of times.

Given the choice between prosecuting a case for an accused criminal who has posted bond and a person who is still in jail, he said, most residents in York County want the accused criminal who’s not in jail to have a trial and be sentenced first.

His team of solicitors prosecuted about 6,500 criminal cases in 2010. Trends show, he said, that the county could handle about 7,600 cases every year in the near future.

“The problem is, it’s going to affect all aspects of the system,” he said. “I’m going to have to push cases through. There will be less time for trials and more cases will be sitting in jail longer because the court time won’t be there to process them.”

Council member Bruce Henderson responded to Brackett’s appeal for immediate action, saying he’d like to see a multi-level justice center constructed in order to avoid the county out-growing its facility again in the next few years.

Voters might be ready for another proposal to spend millions on the project, he said, if the county can prove the necessity for the courtroom expansion and not include “bells and whistles” in the plan.

New construction at the Moss Justice Center could include, according to the council’s discussion on Tuesday, building more courtrooms in an existing parking lot and adding a parking garage.

Courthouse construction

Council Chairman Britt Blackwell questioned on Tuesday night the progress of renovations to the county courthouse in downtown York.

He’s heard many complaints, he said, about how long the planning phase for improvements has lasted.

Council members have discussed renovations to the historic building for almost 10 years. County residents voted down an option for the county to borrow money to fix the building’s problems but the council designated existing money for the project in 2008.

Construction on the courthouse is expected to be complete by December 2015.

A consultant originally hired to oversee the planning and construction for renovations has since been dismissed. The architect designing the improvements also has changed.

The original architect, said County Manager Jim Baker, wanted to restore the courthouse to its exact historical features, which would have cost more than York County wanted to spend.

The challenge of moving court records and of eliminating asbestos and lead-based paint, he said, also has contributed to the wait time on the renovations.

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