Truth, Justice, and the American Way

Will a new justice center provide a happy home for our city and county law enforcement agencies?

A handful of grim new inmates sit on their hands on the three worn metal benches that line the walls of the Knox County Jail intake center. The attending officers work from a cluster of open desks; the booking equipment sits in a promiscuous huddle in a far corner. Once an ordinary office space in the City-County Building, this makeshift facility now serves as the registration desk for all of the county's new overnight guests.

"The intake facility is inadequate in every respect--size, layout, design, and security," says Dwight Van de Vate, the director of planning and development for the Knox County Sheriff's Department, surveying a small carpeted waiting room (now a holding cell) that obviously wasn't designed with volatile criminal offenders in mind. "We had one escape attempt where an inmate went up through the ceiling tiles and crashed through the light fixtures in the hallway."

Should a detainee become violent during intake, Van de Vate notes that officers would have to wend their way through a maze of narrow halls, around several metal detectors and onto an elevator before they could deposit the struggling inmate in a real holding cell in the jail one floor below.

If the intake center looks like an old Night Court set, the jail itself is straight out of Eastwood's Alcatraz. "Now you see why this is called a linear facility," Van de Vate says as he strolls through a seemingly endless black corridor, flanked on either side by menacing rows of heavy iron bars. "A layout like this requires much more staff and affords much less control over the inmates."

There's little question that Knox County needs, and will eventually have, a new intake center and jail with all the electronic steel doors, vacuum-sealed holding tanks and concentrically arrayed inmate dormitories ("podular direct supervision housing") that constitute cutting-edge correctional design. There's also a general consensus that the new facility needs to be free-standing, separate from the 17-year-old City-County Building.

But as county commissioners move tentatively toward fulfilling a nine-year-old federal mandate, other local officials are gridlocked over whether the proposed facility should also include law enforcement offices, courts, and other branches of the legal system.

Knox County Sheriff Tim Hutchison insists that a new jail should have new administrative offices for the Sheriff's Department, the organization responsible for its oversight. Others maintain that it also needs easy access to the criminal courts which, in the City-County building, are only an elevator ride away.

But given that many criminal cases are tried in general sessions courts, and given the overlapping jurisdictions of the county's three court clerks, some officials believe that it behooves the county to put the entire system in a single location--a Justice Center, a sprawling downtown campus with space for detention, courts, clerks, the attorney general's office, and all branches of law enforcement.

According to Jeff Wilkins, county director of facilities planning, a study committee will choose one of several downtown sites, including blocks at Hill Avenue off Henley Street (site of the Lord Lindsey dance club), the Gay Street block that was once the proposed site of a new federal courthouse, and the two-block stretch along State Street currently home to Manpower Temporary Services and a handful of other businesses.

Complicating those plans, however, are a host of squabbles and animosity between several county officials, and a county budget pinch that will only get worse if the city-county unification charter (which contains a three-year property tax moratorium) is approved in a November referendum.

"I think it will eventually boil down to money," says County Commissioner Frank Leuthold, chairman of the Justice Study Committee and the Commission's Finance Committee. "And whatever we end up with, somebody is probably going to scream."

The roots of the proposal go back to 1987, when Knox and several other Tennessee counties were targeted in a class action suit (initiated by Knox inmate Wayne Carver) that sought to alleviate overcrowded jail conditions precipitated by yawning gaps between state and federal detention standards. Then-County Executive Dwight Kessel responded by promising Federal Judge James Jarvis that the county would build an intake center and detention facility by 1990.

The county made good on half of that promise when it opened a new penal farm on Maloneyville Road in East Knoxville two years ago. Plans for the intake center, however, floundered. "Every site we chose, someone had a reason not to use it," Van de Vate says.

Sheriff Tim Hutchison is more blunt. He places the blame for any delays squarely on the shoulders of County Executive Tommy Schumpert (who took office in 1994.) Hutchison charges that Schumpert stalled the intake center by scrapping the work done by Knoxville architecture firm Barber and McMurry, with whom the county had contracted for the project in 1989, and by micro-managing plans for the intake center without consulting him.

"I think (Schumpert) just halfway believes he's everyone's boss, that elected constitutional officers are just department heads who work for him," Hutchison says. "That's not so. This is another one of those cases where (the Sheriff's Department) has to operate it solely, be responsible for it, be accountable for it.

"We are still under court order to complete this facility. Mr. Schumpert's stopping the process to start all over from scratch has delayed it considerably."

Schumpert responds that while the Sheriff's Department may have to wait on new administrative offices if the project runs over budget, the plans for the intake center have proceeded with "due diligence."

"We've gone in with the consultant and moved as quickly and efficiently as possible," Schumpert says. "The intake center is our overriding concern. I'm sure the sheriff would like to see plans for the administrative office move a little faster, but the intake center is our number one priority."

Other officials point to the fact that Kessel's original capital plan didn't call for the intake center to be funded until the latter part of the decade. And it was Kessel, not Schumpert, who appointed the Justice Study Committee--the group of 20-some-odd lawyers and public officials charged with crafting plans for a new intake center.

In any case, the Committee eventually hired CGA Consulting Services of Columbia, S.C., to help shape the proposal that will go before County Commission in September. Although consultant Bob Goble isn't due to submit his recommendations until August, his preliminary findings suggest that the county would be best served by a facility that consolidates the entire legal system--detention, courts, and all arms of law enforcement.

"The study is headed toward the idea that everything be located in a single downtown site," Goble says. "Justice systems have tremendous interrelationships, and it's very inefficient to split those functions up across different buildings."

But putting all components of the justice system in one location is much easier said than done. Presently, Knox County has three chancery courts, four circuit courts, three criminal courts, five general sessions courts and one juvenile court. (Located on Division Street, the juvenile court and offices would not be involved in a move.)

The chancery courts, which handle some civil suits and all questions of law (wills, contracts, etc.) are located on the first floor of the City-County Building, along with two of the criminal courts (the third resides on the third floor). The circuit courts, located on the main floor, handle most lawsuits, save for the Fourth Circuit (with presiding Judge Bill Swann), which hears domestic cases.

The general sessions courts, which handle small claims, misdemeanor offenses, and arraignments, are split between City-County and the old courthouse next door. That layout is already a source of public confusion; as one J.S.C. member quips, "sometimes, even lawyers don't know where to go."

Should the courts be split between a new justice center and the facilities already in use, the arrangement will be further complicated by the fact that court clerks Martha Phillips (criminal courts and domestic relations) and Lillian Bean (circuit court and general sessions) each handle both civil and criminal cases.

Given current budget constraints, most J.S.C. members feel the courts will probably face some sort of unwieldy division. "More criminals appear in sessions court for arraignment than in criminal courts," Leuthold says. "Even if you leave criminal courts where they are now (in City-County), you need at least one sessions courtroom, plus room for clerks and attorneys."

And if the justice system's sundry parts are like blood relatives, different branches of the same family tree, they're also subject to rampant domestic disputes. "It would be hard to get them all to agree to celebrate Christmas on December 25," says another official connected to the study committee.

So what are the wish lists of the players involved? Most observers say criminal court judges will readily embrace relocation, eager to leave behind the open halls and low-security design features of the City-County Building. "They want tight security, and City-County just wasn't built for that," says lawyer Bruce Anderson, chairman of the J.S.C.'s civil court subcommittee.

Fourth Circuit Court Judge Swann, who presides over often-volatile domestic cases, shares that outlook. Swann characterizes pending efforts to retro-fit the City-County Building with walk-through metal detectors and other security devices as too little and too late.

"The present building is an airy cathedral, as open as the marketplace of ideas," Swann says. "A new facility would be architecturally designed for security, as opposed to a cut-and-paste job on our old one."

But Swann's civil court brethren apparently prefer City-County's accessibility and have resisted the notion of moving. "Some judges are just very comfortable working in this building and don't see the need for a new courthouse," says Wilkins, the facilities director. "The trouble with separate courts is you end up splitting the clerks and you end up splitting the juries. That creates problems."

Court clerks, says Anderson, would benefit most from having a consolidated justice facility, as the unified system would allow them to staff fewer branch offices. "Privately, I think they all want their offices consolidated," says Anderson.

But Bean, who says she's pleased with the J.S.C.'s progress, notes that her office's functions are already split among five branches (in City-County, the old courthouse, and the juvenile center on Division Street) and says the new facility will probably neither increase nor reduce her workload.

"I think we also need to ask whether separate courthouses are in the best interests of the public," says Anderson. "I haven't heard anyone talk about public convenience so far and I think that ought to be a factor."

All of these considerations may be rendered moot when the study committee presents its findings to County Commission in September. The county's most recent capital improvements plan, which maps out expenditures from 1997 to 2001, allocates $50 million for the project. Most committee members are reluctant to speculate how much justice center those millions will purchase until Goble makes his final recommendation.

"When they were formulating the capital plan, there had to be some kind of price tag put on (the project)," says justice systems administrator Cynthia Chapman. "That $50 million came with all kinds of disclaimers. It could cost less or, with the way building and planning often go, it could cost more."

According to Leuthold, county commissioners aren't likely to be pliant when confronted with the prospect of stretching the budget. He notes that several must-do school projects in the capital plan have already seen requests for new funds denied.

"The real question is, Do we build a dream palace no one can afford, or do we build what we have to and do more on down the road?" says Leuthold. "At some point we will probably have to start ranking what we want and what we need, and it's unlikely that we'll be able to provide everything the participants want."

In all likelihood, says Leuthold, the Commission will fund a new intake center and jail with administrative offices for the Sheriff's Department and choose a site and a design that will facilitate expansion.

But even plans for the intake center--the only clear mandate in the entire proposal--are mired in charges that progress has been hampered by procrastination and interdepartmental meddling. Leuthold worries that County Commission's incessant fiscal hand-wringing will further delay the project. If the federal court isn't satisfied with their progress, Leuthold says, the county is subject to draconian sanctions, including fines and jail time for officials.

"I don't intend to go to the pen so people don't have to pay taxes to pay for something the federal judge says they have to build," Leuthold says. "But I think he'll be lenient if we just keep the project moving." The clock is ticking: most committee members agree that the new facility won't host its first detainee before 2001.

Officials at the Sheriff's Department charge that the new center's grand opening has been pushed into the next century by interference from other departments. Van de Vate points to a list of department heads--court clerks, civil judges, data processing officials--invited to a subcommittee meeting to discuss such issues as cell-block size and inmate laundry procedure at the new jail.

"By law, the Sheriff's Department is the only organization responsible for the care of county inmates," Van de Vate says with what can best be described as polite exasperation. "But we've had encroachment from other county officials who don't have any experience in this particular specialty. When that happens, you end up with delays and flaws in both procedure and design. These people simply don't have a contribution to make where these issues are concerned.

"In the end, it may not make sense to unify all functions of the legal system. We're talking about very different interests, and there are inherent limits in how much these things can be brought together. the idea that you have this building where you walk in one side, pay your ticket or serve your time and walk out free on the other side is an extreme oversimplification."

The one issue that doesn't seem to cause much concern amid all the finger-pointing and logistical confusion is the fate of any empty City-County space left in the wake of relocation. Given the fertility rate of most bureaucracies and the claustrophobia that seems to have afflicted everything from the public works department to the local veterans affairs office, no one seems worried about leaving a useless seven-story husk off Hill Avenue.

"There's plenty of departments that need extra room, and we could alleviate some of the overcrowding," Wilkins says. "Over the years, I'm sure all the vacated spaces would eventually be filled with other government offices."

© 1996 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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