Chris Berendt Staff Writer
January 15, 2014
Even as a judge has mandated the county tighten security at Sampson court facilities, grants for additional personnel are not readily available to man those facilities, the long-term expansion of which also has to be considered.
Sampson County Public Works director Lee Cannady said the main courthouse that sits in downtown was built in 1904, with additional wings added in 1950. In the 1980s, in need of another courtroom, the county took a renovated car dealership a stone’s throw from the courthouse and developed it into what is now the courthouse annex, with its own courtroom.
Still, in 2004, an additional court facility was needed to relieve third-floor crowding within the other court facilities. So, the old bank building was renovated into what is now the extension, which houses Superior Court on the ground level and the District Attorney’s Offices in the upper level.
“Hindsight is clearly 20/20 and the past should project the future,” said Cannady. “In another 10 years, will it be another courtroom or will it be a courthouse? I’m not recommending to build foundations next week … but I don’t think it’s going to be another 10 years before we have to do something different.”
The need for more court space, and the county accommodating that need over three locations, has put it in a precarious position, with a lack of resources to adequately cover those locations. A minimal amount of deputies to cover a maximum amount of space has been a problem for years. Factoring in multiple entrances into the courthouses, including four at the main courthouse, providing security has been a remote possibility with existing staff unless more personnel is hired or entrances are cut off and court consolidated — or both.
While potential courses of action have been up for discussion in recent years, nothing has come to fruition. However, that is now set to change.
Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Doug Parsons’ ordered the Sampson Board of Commissioners that effective April 1, 2014, all persons entering the three courtrooms will do so through a manned metal detector. Additionally, operable panic buttons for judges must be installed by June 1, 2014.
Logistics have been left up to the board, which will further discuss the matter next week.
Cannady said, similar to the county’s monthly budget discussions, the potential of another court location, where it would be housed and how to best accommodate future needs should start being discussed — or at least be on the radar. He said discussions could lead to plan development, and those plans could be modified, and funded, as needed years down the line.
“I do remember being in a couple sessions years back about building a 125-bed jail at the time, at a cost of $3.5 million. In recent years, we spent $10 million-plus to build one a little larger,” said Cannady. “We’ve always been reactive to situations and I know, with the way economic times are, I think it’s time we need to be proactive.”
In the early 2000s, Cannady recalled, he, along with then-county manager Jerry Hobbs and then-Board of Commissioners chairman Quincy Edgerton were summoned to court regarding a safety and fire issue — a long line of people was snaked around three flights of stairs at the old courthouse for court proceedings.
“That started the conversations about having another court facility developed, which was the old bank building,” said Cannady. “The first preliminary discussions were to take the whole rest of the block and build a jail annex, an extra courtroom, a D.A.’s Office and a courthouse addition.”
Cannady said that the county officials quickly “reeled in” that larger scale project.
“We were told that it was just not a good year,” said Cannady. “I’ve been here 25-plus years and there’s never really been a good year in Sampson County. At the same time, we do what we got to do to make things happen.”
County staff was ultimately told to accomplish what they could in the square footage available at the old bank building to alleviate third-floor crowding, notably in the D.A.’s Office, where people were “stacked like sardines,” Cannady noted. He said City Hall had to be used to hold court in some cases. during a time when three or four places — not all county sites — were being utilized. The extension was meant for entry-level use to alleviate crowding.
“That same facility now is a Superior Courtroom, where we have recently bricked up the windows for security concerns because the jurors’ backs were to the public windows,” said Cannady. “This facility was never designed as a Superior Courtroom. It was designed for entry-level use to relieve the third-floor crowding issue and not use City Hall.”
Sheriff Jimmy Thornton said that, while in 1904 the main courthouse likely held nearly every county operation available, those services have since branched out to the other court facilities, as well as the County Complex on Rowan Road, Fontana Street and Southeast Boulevard.
“We’ve come a long way as far as occupants spanning out and going to other locations,” said Thornton, who noted that just the Clerk of Court, N.C. Probation and a couple judge’s offices still remain in the main courthouse.
Now was a time to be proactive in looking for a better method of holding court going forward, Cannady said. Parsons has already said that the court calendar in Sampson cannot be handled with less than three courts and those three will be simultaneously in session for nearly half the time over the next three months.
Atop the U.S. Marshal’s Service’s solutions as part of a security assessment about four years ago was to build another courthouse, quickly ruled out as cost-prohibitive by a courthouse security team formed in 2010. Other solutions were to increase deputy staffing for prisoner movement and court security functions and establish a main entry screening at each facility and controlling access through other entrances.
A proposal made by the team in February 2011 proposed to bring increased personnel and equipment to the three local facilities at a “bare minimum” cost of around $400,000.
Cannady said that proposal is “the cheapest and simplest” solution. He said metal detection/scanning devices need to be located at a main entrance of all three court facilities, video cameras located at key locations and card access installed at doors.
District Court Judge Henry Stevens IV called the lack of security, especially in the annex, “appalling” and “utterly unacceptable,” stating that it was inexcusable for county officials to continue to ignore security needs that put many lives — those of judges, lawyers, county social workers and a wealth of citizens — at risk.
While a $400,000 proposal is still on the table, many of the grants that could have offset some short-term personnel needs are not, Sheriff Jimmy Thornton said.
While some security equipment was purchased using approximately $90,000 one-time 911 funds a couple years ago, that equipment has not been able to be used with no one to man it. Currently, the county has a total of just four full-time bailiffs and one part-time bailiff. Thornton said last week the county will have to hire an additional five full-time deputies, and potentially two contract or civilian officers.
Grants, including Department of Justice funds that have been applied for in past years, will likely not assist this time around.
“These grants are time-sensitive,” the sheriff said. “It’s off the table. I couldn’t commit to anything not knowing ‘when’ and ‘if,’ so it’s over. I could re-apply, but it would be in a different form this time. It would not be in the form of (bailiff) positions.”
“We’re to the point now where we really need to know what steps to take,” said Cannady.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.