Courthouse full of security issues

Published 11:42 am Saturday, August 15, 2009

JACKSON — The feasibility study looking into renovating the Northampton County Courthouse or constructing a new facility is well underway.

On Tuesday, representatives with Moseley Architects met with the Courthouse Facility and Security Committee to speak to the group about the 151 year-old facility and gauge the needs of court officials and personnel.

According to Chief 6B District Court Judge Alfred Kwasikpui, who chairs the committee, the feasibility study by the architect firm was approved by the Northampton County Commissioners in June.

The $6,000 study will evaluate the courthouse, both in terms of assessing the existing facility for renovation as well as future needs of a possible new structure.

Kwasikpui said the team was meeting with court officials and personnel in either small groups or individually in regards to their needs and concerns.

The Charlotte-based architect firm also handed out a questionnaire to personnel who work in the court facility to gauge many facets of the courthouse, including a tally of case projections, number of employees and the frequency of public interaction.

Kwasikpui was joined by several other court officials in the meeting, including 6B District Attorney Valerie Asbell and 6B Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Cy Grant.

During the open discussion with the architects, the group’s concern over security was the major issue.

Apprehension about contact between court officials and defendants in common areas like the restroom and elevators as well as secure waiting rooms for victims and an isolated juror room were on the minds of officials as Kwasikpui, Grant, Asbell and Sheriff Wardie Vincent all voiced their worries.

Asbell said her first concern was security. She spoke about having a secure room for domestic violence victims, as required by law, as well as the set up of the main courtroom, which has security flaws and problems with the acoustics in terms of hearing those who are speaking.

Asbell said often times in the current facility there are no separation between defendants, jurors and witnesses.

“There’s nowhere to put them,” she said.

Kwasikpui echoed a similar opinion in terms of security.

“There are not enough barriers for the general public,” he said. “A person can walk in the back door and have access to the whole building.”

Vincent noted the updates that were made since the meetings of the committee began, including security cameras and locking doors. However, the improvements do not include all floors of the courthouse.

“Security is definitely first and foremost my concern,” he said. “The courthouse is not adequate for what we deal with today…we need to focus on a new facility because the room is just not there.”

Moseley Architects Vice President Daniel Mace told the group thier concerns did not come as a shock.

“A historic courthouse wasn’t designed for that (separating officials from the general public),” he said. “None of what you say is a surprise.”

For Grant, a new facility seemed to be more of a logical path as well. The judge talked about having secure parking for officials as well as having judges exit the courtroom into their chambers in order to cut out interaction with the public and the defendants.

“We need much more security than we have now,” he said.

Courtrooms with good sightlines for the jury, technology and the court reporter having her or his own office are also needs, according to Grant.

Clerk of Court Michelle Spruill agreed security was big issue as well as a healthy environment for employees.

Spruill said many of the past problems concerning bats and mold have been dealt with, but those problems have returned.

“I don’t think this county has the resources to make that right,” she said. “We really just need a good flowing, functional facility…not just looking for a courthouse, but a judicial center.

Attorney Luther Culpepper said finding a private meeting room to speak with clients is hard to find in the historic courthouse.

“There’s nowhere to sit down and talk to somebody, there’s no space for a meeting,” he said.

Jay Watson with Probation and Parole noted how his office had been moved to the Intensive Office down the street. As of October 1, the county will be responsible for the leasing of that office as the state is removed from the task of contracts with private buildings.

At the end of the meeting, Mace urged the committee members to contact the firm.

“We want to get in as much information back from you in the time frame we have,” he said.