Local officials say Rock Hill's municipal court continues to handle cases efficiently, despite already severe space restrictions. But it is apparent that courtroom space must be expanded and that justice could suffer soon if it isn't.
Municipal court handles speeding tickets, traffic violations and cases that carry fewer than 30 days in jail. Those cases include marijuana possession, shoplifting, disorderly conduct and other minor violations.
The Rock Hill Police Departments made about 18,000 cases last year and, including cases already on the docket, that means thousands of people cycle through the municipal court each year. It is a wonder that the current backlog is only 600 to 700 cases.
When court is in session, the primary courtroom is packed. A converted jury room houses potential jurors who sit elbow-to-elbow waiting to be called. A converted office serves as a second cramped courtroom.
Police, administrators, attorneys, defendants and witnesses circulate in and out of the courtroom. Lawyers have nowhere to go inside the building to speak with clients in private.
The issue of lack of space came to the forefront recently when a report commissioned by the city said the city's law enforcement building is "substantially inadequate" and "not designed to meet the 2008 needs of the (police) department."
That report examined personnel needs in the department and recommended hiring 21 more police officers. The comprehensive report, conducted by the consulting firm of Carroll Buracker & Associates, also examined the overall operation of the department and recommended several policy changes.
The city will refer to the report as it considers an upgrade of the law building this year. Mayor Doug Echols said local law enforcement needs will be "on the front burner for the next six months" before final budget discussions take place in May.
City officials have yet to pinpoint how much more courtroom space -- along with new officers and other police department needs -- can be financed. Echols said that a property tax increase could be an option, although council members are not eager to go that route.
Clearly, however, the need to expand courtroom space is pressing. With anticipated population growth, the need only can grow more dire.
We commend the judges, attorneys and staff who continue to clear cases in these difficult working conditions. Eventually, however, the quality of justice will suffer if those conditions grow worse.
Courtroom personnel worry about security with people packed so tightly. Any violent disruption could endanger people in the courtroom.
A tax increase during a recession would be painful. Nonetheless, the city has to maintain the quality of its police department and judicial system.
Ultimately, the price for neglecting those needs could be harder to bear than a tax increase.
Rock Hill city officials are confronting problem of overcrowded municipal court.