Letter from Columbia County Commissioners
Proposal for the Columbia County Law and Justice Center
November 5, 2020
Finished in 1887, the Columbia County Courthouse is a beautiful piece of history, a boon to the tourist industry, and a general point of pride for the citizens of the county. From its stately position and through several facelifts, the courthouse has witnessed the ebbs and flows of history come and gone. In celebrating statehood in 1889, railroad booms in Dayton and Starbuck, the arrival and evolutions of the Blue Mountain Cannery to Green Giant to Pillsbury to Seneca, the building of Little Goose Dam, and the growth of agriculture as the mainstay industry, the courthouse has been the county’s constant companion. It holds an important place in our history and will continue to be an integral part of our culture in the years to come.
As beautiful and constant as the courthouse is, the needs of the 21st century have rendered it inadequate for the tasks required of it. In the areas of security, layout, and technology, the standards of today have left the beauty of history behind. Specifically, the sheriff’s department and jail, dispatch, and the courts are in great need of upgrades that the old courthouse cannot provide. It is for these reasons that the citizens of Columbia County should seek opportunities to build a modern Law and Justice Building.
The Jail/Sheriff’s Office
The jail currently has 11 beds, though three of them are out in the catwalk area. Cramped and dark, the jail has no capacity to separate inmates from each other. This presents many problems, among them are: potential witness tampering in the case of busting a ring of alleged criminals, fighting inmates, separating genders, and mental health patients cannot be cared for adequately. The jail has no real booking area, holding cell, evidence intake, or dedicated interview room. It is also devoid of sally ports, or a dedicated route to the courtroom. Both of these inadequacies present a danger to both deputies and the public. There is also inadequate storage for both evidence and officer weapons and equipment
Due to its cramped size and poor layout, Columbia County is forced to send some of its prisoners to be housed in other jails around the region. All-female prisoners are sent out of the county. Any co-defendants must not be housed together, so a large bust dictates that all but one of the alleged offenders would be sent elsewhere. Due to its limited beds, there are almost always Columbia County prisoners in facilities located in other counties. There is a constant stream of deputies transporting prisoners to and from other jails, to and from court dates, and to and from medical visits. All of this is a huge burden for the taxpayers of Columbia County, both in wasted transport time, and rent for space in the other facilities.
The sheriff’s deputies have to transport and house their prisoners in an unsafe manner. The arresting officer has to park his or her vehicle in the parking lot and walk out in the open with a prisoner across the large lawn before they even arrive at the door to the Sheriff’s Office. This means the deputy is at risk if the prisoner makes a run for it, or if accomplices wish to free the prisoner. It also means the deputy would have a difficult time protecting the prisoner if a victim’s family or friends want to mete out their own justice. Any modern facility would have a sally port, where the deputy would have control of the environment from the moment he or she exited the vehicle, all the way through to a holding cell to begin the booking process. In the current building, the desks of the deputies are in the same area as the evidence storage room, the interview room, and the intake/booking room, which also puts the deputies at risk. If a prisoner starts a fight while being fingerprinted, the fight could easily spill out into the office area, putting the prisoner and deputies at risk.
One would be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful courtroom than Columbia County’s courtroom. However, beneath its ornate majesty, the courtroom is wholly inadequate for the requirements of a 21st-century venue of justice. In an era of traveling judges, pandemics, and telecommunication, the Columbia County Courtroom leaves much to be desired. In a historic building, wires required to function with modern technology cannot be installed in walls. This makes the current courtroom a jumble of wires with constant technological glitches and hiccups. Judges from out of town who attempt tele-court often find recordings have been garbled, or defendants unable to hear the judge. The room is also so big that the acoustics are terrible. In a county with a majority of the population is over 60, jurors find it difficult to hear the proceedings. The jury room seats six people comfortably. Twelve jurors can be packed in, but only if half are standing or not seated at the table, this was prior to social distancing. WIth social distancing, the rooms max capacity is 6. It is incumbent upon the county to provide a fair and efficient trial for defendants. In the area of our courtroom, we are falling short of acceptable.
The courtroom is also inadequate in the area of safety. There is no controlled access for prisoners to be escorted from the jail into the courtroom. This poses a threat to the public, the deputies, the judge, and the accused. The public elevator is used for prisoner transport, and there are two entrances into the courtroom, both right next to the judge. It would be difficult to protect the judge and the public when both the exits are easily obstructed in the event of a brawl, or a mass shooter, or other unforeseen threats. The modern building would take into account both technology and safety for prisoners, deputies, court officials, jurors, and spectators alike.
In an area of the Columbia County Courthouse no larger than an average shipping container, one finds the cramped, un-air-conditioned space of the department of Emergency Management and Dispatch. Employees who are supposed to be alert and ready for action at any moment are expected to take their breaks in a vault, where conduit wiring and loud ductwork share their space. Air-conditioning? That is reserved for 911 servers costing hundreds of thousands of dollars and sit behind makeshift walls to capture the cool air that they require to function properly. Unfortunately, those same servers are sitting underwater pipes in a building built in the 1880s. Our servers are state of the art, and could potentially bring the county revenue in the form of contracts with surrounding counties, but nobody wants the risk associated with the server’s precarious position. In the event of massive emergencies, such as a flood or wildfire, the emergency manager is forced to move the command center to another building, because the office is the size of a closet.
These are only a few of the reasons Columbia County has begun to explore the idea of constructing a new Law and Justice Building. In the following weeks, months, and years, the county will do its best to transparently display the need for this new facility. Additionally, the county will be seeking input and help from the citizens in both needs assessment and design. The county is not seeking to build a large ornate facility that will cost the taxpayers an unreasonable amount of money to operate.
There are many other benefits that the new building will bring with it. The current courthouse has inadequate storage, with old records rotting in non-climate controlled buildings. It was remodeled in the early 1990s when computers and multi-media was not as ubiquitous and necessary as it is today. The current courthouse does not have the technological capacity for today’s modern world.
In addition, a community meeting room/deputy training room could be a great addition for both the public at large and the employees of Columbia County. There are few places where the community has access to a modern room for large gatherings or trainings. In the modern era multi-use facilities are both practical, and environmentally conscious. A community room large enough to accommodate both the public’s needs and the county’s needs would be a welcome addition.
There are many potential cost saving elements that would stem from the new building. The county could reduce the burden on the taxpayers by eliminating rented offices and either moving them back into the current courthouse or into the new building.
The new building would be energy efficient. The cost of transporting and housing prisoners would be greatly reduced by having enough cells to house and separate inmates. The new building would allow offices to have one point of reception, thereby freeing employees to do their stated jobs, rather than act as reception. These are just some of the benefits to the new building. Many more will be fleshed out as the process moves forward.
While some expenses are unavoidable, the county is committed to seeking and securing grant funding and help from external entities to shoulder the great majority of the cost associated with the construction of the building. It is very likely that the vast majority of the cost of construction will be paid for by grant funding. With the help and input of experts and citizens alike, it is the county’s sincere hope that while the current courthouse continues to stand with the people as we march through history, the new Law and Justice building will be the workhorse to advance Columbia County’s public safety sector into the modern century.