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Saturday, July 2, 2016

Crowded courthouse causes frayed nerves

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A crowd of General Sessions court defendants listen to Circuit Court Clerk Thomas Smith and Deputy Rodney Guinn on Tuesday for instructions on how their cases would be heard. A list of 146 defendants resulted in officials only allowing 50 people to enter the courtroom at a time.
(T-G Photo by Brian Mosely) [Order this photo]
It was a packed courthouse on Tuesday.

With 145 defendants slated to appear in General Sessions Court, it was standing room only in the hallways at the Bedford County Courthouse.

A civil jury trial was taking place in the main courtroom on the second floor, so those who were scheduled to appear before Judge Charles Rich were consigned to a much smaller courtroom on the first floor

It was so crowded on Tuesday that Circuit Court Clerk Thomas Smith could only allow 50 people at a time to enter the courtroom.

Deputy Rodney Guinn, who acts as bailiff, had to warn the crowd several times not to talk while waiting for their turn in the courtroom since there were other proceedings ongoing elsewhere in the building.

Not only do defendants have to pack into the small court chambers, but so do defense attorneys, prosecutors, prisoners, bondsmen, probation officers, court reporters and the police officers, state troopers and county deputies who bring the charges against the defendants.

With this many people crowding into such tiny quarters, the issue of safety -- for defendants, prisoners, court officials and the public, becomes apparent.

Is it safe?

Last November, sheriff's department administrator Larry Lowman told the county's law enforcement committee that there's no way to completely secure the courthouse.

Lowman stated a consulting firm from Florida evaluated the courthouse and reported that it can't be properly secured due to the number of entrances.

The courthouse has first floor entrances on all four sides, and the basement entrance must be kept open as the only wheelchair access to the building.

Two people that had business in General Sessions court on Tuesday were wheelchair bound.

Clerk & Master Curt Cobb has also recently applied for a grant for security measures in Chancery Court, where the results of divorces and child custody cases can be a potential security risk.

The sheriff's department has a single bailiff assigned to the courthouse and during days court is held, there are usually one or two deputies present who are transporting prisoners from the jail.

However, on the busiest court days, as many as four different court proceedings can be taking place at the same time, which means there may not be a law enforcement officer in every courtroom.

On Monday, deputies had to place shackled prisoners into the jury box of the third floor chancery courtroom for Circuit Court and grand jury arraignments because there was no other place to keep them.

A new building?

Recent statements from those that handle the county's justice system indicate that a larger facility is needed.

But the issue is money.

Smith said recently in a candidate supplement published by the T-G that the county will have to "make do with what we have," due to economic conditions.

Sheriff Randall Boyce stated that the county is no different than the rest of the world which is struggling with financial difficulties.

Boyce also said that a new criminal justice center is one answer to many of the current space and security issues.

Rod Stacy, a candidate for sheriff, says that space at the current jail could be used in a more efficient manner by restructuring and using the space available.

David Stemper, who is running for Smith's court clerk seat, supports the idea of a metal detector at one courthouse entrance, with keycard locked doors accessible only to employees and law enforcement for the other three entrances.

Last year, Lowman presented a floor plan for a criminal justice center to the county's law enforcement and workhouse committee.

The proposal is for a jail with five 100-bed pods: one "lockdown" pod, two dormitory-style direct supervision pods, a women's pod and a workhouse pod. Each pod would have a computer kiosk which inmates could use to look up court dates, state codes, and other information.

The center would also have five courtrooms and all of the related clerks' offices, eliminating the need to transport prisoners between the jail and courthouse.

The court facilities would also meet new security requirements that can't be met by the current county courthouse and there would also be room for the communications center if it wanted to relocate.

Lowman said experts have told him it would be better to build a jail from the ground up, which would require a 20-25 acre site.

As for paying for such a facility. Lowman said last year that while a jail would be expensive, it would also bring in revenue.

Possible funds

The state is constantly asking local jails to keep state felons, and it pays them a per diem for doing so. A larger jail would mean that more such felons could be accepted.

There are other funding methods that are used to beef up courthouse security.

A 2006 state law funds court security by increasing the cost of continuance fees from $5 to $7.

The additional $2 collected for every court continuance remains in the counties where it is collected and must be used for courthouse security.

A courthouse security fund, paid for from these court fees, had $71,596 in it at the end of June 2009

In 2007, 83 of Tennessee's 95 counties received a share of a $2 million appropriation for panic buttons, handheld metal detectors, bulletproof benches, walk-through magnetometers, X-ray machines, camera and surveillance systems, stun guns and bulletproof vests.

Counties had to put up matching money of just more than 11 percent, and Bedford County received around $6,000 at that time.

--City editor John Carney contributed to this report.