Overcrowding, security issues top chief judge’s reasons to push for new Will County courthouse
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY email@example.com June 22, 2014 8:16PM
Joliet, 5/27/14--A line forms outside the north entrance of the Will County Courthouse in Joliet on Tuesday shortly before its 8:30 a.m. opening. | Jeff Krage/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 24, 2014 6:15AM
Long before the doors open at 8:30 a.m., people are lined up outside the Will County Courthouse in downtown Joliet. It takes awhile to get inside the building, through an outdated security system, and up one of four elevators to their destination.
The courthouse is a bustling building where thousands come to pay a traffic ticket, look up court cases, have a case tried by a judge or jury, seek an order of protection, get divorced or serve as a juror. Dealing with crowds and waiting in line is part of their visit here — but there are more issues for those who work here every day.
Crowded conditions are the most obvious problem at the courthouse, but that’s only one of the reasons Chief Judge Richard Schoenstedt has pushed the county to construct a new judicial complex.
The four-story concrete structure on Jefferson Street was never designed to be a courthouse, and not a single courtroom meets the minimum standards set by the Illinois Supreme Court, which emphasize safety and security — Schoenstedt’s two other reasons for insisting on a new court facility.
When it was built in 1969, it housed all Will County offices, the county board chambers, six courtrooms and seven judges. The county’s population then was 175,000.
It also grew that much in the 10 years between the 2000 census and the 2010 census, Schoenstedt said. Today there are 35 judges and 29 courtrooms, six of which are offsite, and county offices are scattered throughout downtown Joliet.
Based on its current population of 682,800, according to US Census figures, Will County should have three more judges, but there is no room, Schoenstedt said.
“The people of Will County are not being served well. Too many citizens are waiting to be heard. We do not want to continue cases,” he said. “At times, we have the first-, second- or third-busiest court, based on judges’ caseload.”
From his fourth-floor office, the chief judge’s office window overlooks the First Midwest Bank building across Ottawa Street, which the county recently bought. The long-term plan is to demolish it and build a new courthouse on that corner — at an estimated cost of $140 million to $200 million.
In the meantime, the bank building will temporarily house the sheriff’s department, as the county attempts to consolidate its facilities and eliminate rental properties while it searches for funds to build a new courthouse.
The existing courthouse was designed to be used by a few hundred people a day but has 300 employees plus another 3,000 people who visit daily.
“It is not built to handle this many,” Schoenstedt said.
And it was not built with today’s security issues in mind.
“Security was not an issue in 1969 like it is today,” he said. It is a huge concern beyond the 20-year-old technology used for screening all who enter.
Everyone comes in on the first floor. There is no separate entrance for judges or jurors.
In the first-floor hallway, offenders often stand elbow to elbow and share an elevator with victims, attorneys, jurors and judges who may be involved in their cases.
Upon arrival, jurors are directed into one room just past the front door, where they fill all 110 folding chairs set in rows while waiting to be called. There is a vending machine, a single unisex bathroom and a television.
Courtroom standards require a “spacious” assembly area for prospective jurors, furnished for passive activities such as reading, writing and TV viewing, with separate rest rooms.
“I feel worse for the jurors. We make our living here, but they are only here to do their civic duty. We treat them like absolute dirt,” Schoenstedt said on a recent tour of the building.
The offices of the circuit court clerk occupy the entire second floor and seem to use every inch of space. The 140 employees are crammed into cubicles, and buckets of case files fill desktops.
Separate vaults for criminal, civil and traffic cases are required to hold years and years of records on shelves. Some are shipped offsite to the archive center or other buildings, where 34 others work.
“Our biggest need is for more electronics. This is an old building and we need to upgrade the wiring,” Court Clerk Pam McGuire said.
Computers keep court cases up to date, and the public can search records here and pay fines.
The third floor is for misdemeanor cases, divorces and family issues.
Less than an hour after the courthouse opens, this hallway is packed with people waiting outside their assigned courtroom. It is standing room only, and people have to elbow their way through the crowd.
“The benches had to be taken out to make more room for people,” Schoenstedt said. “No one is here for a good reason and then they have to stand around and wait in lines. Family court also can be very emotional.”
Court administrator Kurt Sangmeister called this area a “powderkeg” — all it would take is for one irate person to “erupt,” he said.
“Thank God our deputies are well-trained. Because of them, there have been no major issues,” the chief judge said.
Former closets and lounges have been converted into courtrooms, some of which are squeezed into remote corners with a single entrance, failing to comply with standards stipulating that judges have separate entrances and courtrooms be windowless.
The fourth floor, home of felony court, is less crowded. Fewer cases are heard here, but they take longer.
From a separate small elevator, about 80 to 100 prisoners — the “custodies” — are moved to and from courtrooms every day, some in shackles, through a 4-foot-wide corridor behind the courtrooms — the same hallway used by judges, jurors, witnesses and police.
“That is a no-no for many reasons,” Schoenstedt said.
“If they are angry and feel they have nothing to lose, they might lash out,” he said. “It’s also unfair for a juror to see a defendant in custody. Seeing prisoners in uniform, in shackles, who have not bonded out, might give the impression that they are guilty because they are still in jail. We have to be so careful.”
If that elevator is down for maintenance, the custodies are transported in the public elevators.
It is also a “juggling act” to keep certain prisoners separated, Sangmeister said.
The whole process of transporting those in custody is inefficient, requiring more manpower and coordination to separate them from the public, Schoenstedt said.
He also juggles the trial schedule so judges in the 13 criminal courtrooms don’t all need the five jury rooms at the same time.
Tucked into a corner of the fourth floor is the law library, which is open to the public and shares a hallway with felony courtrooms and custodies.
A door clearly marked “exit” is immediately across the hall, but nine out of 10 people go down the hallway instead, assistant librarian Diane Brandolino said.
There are surveillance cameras, and sheriff’s deputies are frequent visitors.
“This place gets packed. All kinds of people come and go here. We’re hidden away. That’s what bothers me most,” Brandolino said.
Schoenstedt’s goal is to move the library temporarily into the former bank building.
People joke about it, but the 45-year-old courthouse is literally falling apart, the chief judge said. Several weeks ago, during open session in felony court in Room 405, a piece of the plaster ceiling fell and almost hit the defendant. In Room 404, a 100-pound chunk of plaster fell into an empty jury box on a weekend.
Brick flooring on the first floor buckled this year in the high-traffic area in front of the elevators. It was repaired and then buckled again, Schoenstedt said.
During heavy rains, buckets line the fourth-floor hall, where the roof has leaked for a couple of years.
Schoenstedt knows it will be more than a couple of years before a new courthouse gets built. After pushing for this for years, he now is seeing bits of progress. An architect has been hired to analyze and design space needs.
A funding source has yet to be determined by the Will County board, but the chief judge was successful in helping getting a recent bill passed in Springfield allowing the county to collect a new court fee, up to $30 per person, which could generate $1 million to $2 million per year for a new building. It awaits Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature.
“It’s a nice start,” Schoenstedt said.