Last updated: October 16. 2013 5:02PM - 1400 Views
By - cberendt@civitasmedia.com

Chris Berendt/Sampson IndependentSenior Resident Superior Court Judge Doug Parsons, left, urges the Sampson Board of Commissioners to do all they can to increase security for local court facilities, as Sheriff Jimmy Thornton listens.
Chris Berendt/Sampson IndependentSenior Resident Superior Court Judge Doug Parsons, left, urges the Sampson Board of Commissioners to do all they can to increase security for local court facilities, as Sheriff Jimmy Thornton listens.
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A connector addition between two courthouses in downtown Clinton, researched for the possibility of upping security at a reduced long-term cost for manpower, would not be feasible — a conclusion that prompted Sampson’s Board of Commissioners to go back to the drawing board in exploring the most cost-effective security alternative.

The board agreed to spend $30,000 in May to hire RATIO Architects Inc. to conduct a comprehensive feasibility study to explore options for providing an at-grade, all-weather building connector between the main courthouse and the extension building in downtown Clinton, and present designs for consideration.

The possibility of building connectivity was broached by commissioners at the beginning of this year as a way to circumvent numerous entrances into multiple courts and minimize manpower to secure those access ways. The ultimate effort was to save money down the line in tightening security for local court facilities.

At a special budget session Tuesday night, RATIO architect Sharon Crawford said that would not be accomplished in a feasible manner with a connector, which would add a large price tag for the county and not eliminate the need for more personnel or technology, she said.

She asked whether the board wanted her to continue with the feasibility study. The board ultimately decided it would cease the study — the amount the county will recoup is not yet known — and go another direction.

In conducting research, Crawford spoke to Sheriff Jimmy Thornton, Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Doug Parsons, Clerk of Court Norman Wayne Naylor, District Attorney Ernie Lee and Commissioner Albert Kirby, among others. Based upon those meetings and research, Crawford deduced the courthouse connector may not be the appropriate solution given the security concerns and limited county funding.

“It raised a flag to us — we would hate to spend money and go through this study, and then spend more money, when is this really the answer? A light went off after meeting with everybody. I don’t know that this solves what we need to solve. We still have issues with co-mingling and accessibility,” Crawford said. “We’re really just looking at the connector piece … and it didn’t feel right to proceed with a design of something that, in the end, may not help us.”

Crawford said RATIO could proceed with the remainder of the feasibility study and design plans, but said technology and security equipment upgrades, as well as personnel, would be necessary regardless of a connector addition. One person would be needed at the main entry point and a minimum of two personnel would be needed in the courtroom. Additionally, Crawford said the connector would link the two courthouses in the downtown, but the annex, which handles domestic cases that often pose the most consistent dangers, would not benefit from security upgrades.

There would also be design considerations even with the connector, notably the co-mingling of attorneys, judges, inmates and the public. That, and other safety issues, have been prevalent for decades at Sampson County court facilities.

In an answer to concerns from local judicial officials years ago, a security assessment by the U.S. Marshal’s Service identified critical areas of concern and possible solutions for local courts. A courthouse security team, co-chaired by Thornton and county manager Ed Causey, was formed at the end of 2010 to identify suitable, cost-effective solutions of making the main courthouse, the courthouse extension and the courthouse annex safer.

In February 2011, the courthouse security team recommended an initial plan for security measures that would bring increased personnel and equipment to three local facilities at a “bare minimum” cost of around $400,000 for the 2011-12 fiscal year, not inclusive of all security needs.

Public Works Director Lee Cannady, who worked closely with Crawford, referred the board back to that initial plan as the most cost-effective for the time-being.

“There are going to be some challenges and it is going to be expensive,” said Cannady of the connector. “Do you want to spend the money to do this, or do an alternative? I think we’re to that point where we need to look at more options. I don’t think there are any cheaper alternatives than what was already presented with manpower and technology.”

Thornton said there is the possibility of getting two grant-funded positions through the Governor’s Crime Commission, which would require a match. The sheriff said he could likely match the grant for the three years mandated, but would not be able to take on the expense after that.

“When we presented this report, I think we came up with a pretty good proposal — even though it was a bare-bones proposal — to accommodate the security issues in all three locations,” the sheriff said of the 2011 proposal. “We were looking at four positions, two that would be permanently in the old courthouse (and) two would alternate between the Extension and the Annex, with screening devices set up with one entrance at both locations.”

That kind of manpower would be necessary, with or without a connector, which could cost between half a million and a million dollars.

‘We have a nightmare’

Parsons, sitting in on Tuesday’s meeting, said something has to be done to beef up security.

The Superior Court judge recently tried a case in Sampson in which a defendant was sentenced to 15 years in jail for rape in a particularly contentious case. As with all Superior Criminal Court cases tried in the ground floor Extension courtroom, jurors had their backs to several windows right off the street. In relaying his concerns, Parsons recalled a drive-by shooting at a barber shop on Lisbon Street several years back, a mere hundred yards from the Clinton Police Department.

“If they’ll ride by leaning out the window with semi-automatic pistols, with the police station within baseball-throwing distance,” said Parsons, “I can assure you they will turn that corner there and shoot in that old bank.”

Cannady said the Courthouse Extension windows would be bricked up in the near future, a project that has been discussed for months. However, Parsons said the problems do not end there, calling the Courthouse Annex the county’s “most dangerous court,” housing child custody cases that can be the most heated of all.

“We’re going to be liable and we’re going to get sued, and we’ll have a huge verdict against us,” said Parsons. “We have a nightmare that you didn’t create. Now, with such a violent world out there …. we didn’t have Columbine and Sandy Hook and all that when we did all this, but we’re here. And now we’ve got a nightmare trying to secure all three buildings and it’s cost-prohibitive.”

Parsons said Jones County operates everything in a single 1915 courthouse, shutting off all the entrances except for one. All employees, judges, members of the public and others enter through the same screened entrance, with inmates taken into a back entrance via swipe key. It is that way in the majority of counties, but not Sampson.

The judge said he was concerned not for himself, but for members in the audience of packed courtrooms and jurors themselves.

“We are where we are, not by anybody’s fault sitting here, but we’ve got to address it somehow or we’re going to get hurt,” Parsons said. “All I want to do is whatever (we can) to keep anybody from getting killed or hurt, and keep us from getting sued. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, doesn’t have to be aesthetically-pleasing — just keep everybody alive the cheapest way we can do it. I don’t want anyone to get hurt and have it be on our watch.”

Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at cberendt@civitasmedia.com.

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