Stating that the court system in Adams County is "rock solid" in its goal of delivering fair and impartial justice to county residents, Superior Court Judge Patrick Miller said Monday there nonetheless are issues that "cannot be ignored" regarding court facilities and the safety of those who visit the sites.
Miller delivered the annual State of the Judiciary address as part of the Decatur Rotary Club's noon luncheon program. He said the local courts "have weathered the storm of the current economy and still stand strong," in part due to new programs implemented by he and Circuit Court Judge Frederick Schurger in conjunction with the prosecutor's office, clerk of courts, sheriff's department and Community Corrections department.
Miller said the county has seen an increase in overall crime during the past year, although serious crimes such as burglaries and drug dealing have decreased. Miller said battery cases, theft and felony drunk driving cases are showing an increase, "which can easily be linked to the poor state of our financial economy." Juvenile crime has decreased in the county, but juvenile school suspensions and expulsions are up, Miller said.
He said court officials have been working with the law enforcement community, the prosecutor's office and others "to find ways to more effectively rehabilitate juvenile and criminal offenders." The number of individuals on program has dropped by more than 75 in the past two years, Miller said, while new programs have been implemented by the Community Corrections department to supervise and rehabilitate 54 felony home detention inmates and 51 misdemeanor home detention cases.
Miller praised Sheriff Shane Rekeweg and his staff for several improvements at the local jail, including the expansion of the work-release facility which now houses men and women. The judge said that due to the use of work-release for local defendants, the jail received income of more than $70,000 last year, a 69 percent increase from the prior year, by allowing non-violent minor criminal offenders to work and pay their own way through jail.
Miller also alerted the Chamber crowd about a bill which has been debated in the state General Assembly "and is destined to become law." House Bill 1011, Miller said, would "impede the county's ability to send Class D felons to the state Department of Corrections." If approved by state lawmakers, low-level felons would become the responsibility of individual counties to house.
"And our little jail would not be able to handle the influx," Miller said. "That means the county will need to address adding on to the current facility or building a new jail."
He also touched briefly on "two major issues" currently facing the county: A superior court building badly in need of renovation and/or replacement, and the need for enhanced security measures at both the superior and circuit court sites.
The superior court building is not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Miller said, and is in need of extensive repairs from top to bottom. "The building is too small to adequately house the court and the probation department, and was never designed to house a court in the first place."
Miller said there were 3,842 cases filed last year in superior court, "and as a result on any given day it is not unreasonable to have 25-75 individuals coming to court to address their cases. Superior Court cannot effectively and adequately address than many people at one time."
The jurist said the county is currently exploring options, ranging from the renovation of the present court building to the construction of a new facility to moving the court to an existing structure. "This project continues to be explored and will certainly be a topic for future discussions and debate," Miller said.
He said security concerns "are the single most important issue facing the courts" to ensure the well-being of citizens and court staff members alike. He said judges, county commissioners and the county council "all want and intend to provide the patrons of Adams County government with a safe working environment" and will continue to wrestle with the conditions of the building as well as safety concerns.