Seeking Justice: County makes its pitch for justice center at elementary school site

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RBC — With construction under way on the new elementary school, the future of the existing school site continues to generate discussion.
phrbcjusticecenterrenderingOwnership of the site reverts to the town of Meeker once the RE-1 school district’s lease ends. That “inheritance” leaves the town in a quandary: What to do with a leaky, asbestos-ridden, 70-year-old building on prime downtown real estate?
Several groups have approached the town with suggestions, including using it as a home for the chamber of commerce, a visitor’s center, new businesses downtown or as a Meeker site for Colorado Northwestern Community College. But none of the suggestions has stirred the blood of Meeker citizens like the county’s suggestion to turn the site into a justice center.
The county beat everyone else to the punch June 2, with a presentation to the Meeker Board of Trustees for a new justice center that would house the county jail, courtrooms, and increase administrative space in the congested county courthouse.
County Administrator Pat Hooker said, “With the elementary school coming available, we’d like to present this idea of a design for a justice center at that site.”
Jim Lichty, of Archetype Design Group, Inc., from Leawood, Kan., specializes in designing criminal justice facilities. He has worked with the county for the last six months on a “needs assessment” for a new county jail, and was part of the remodeling project at the courthouse last year.
The county created a seven-phase “wish list” with a redevelopment plan geared toward getting the county the space it needs and ADA compliance. The “wish list” included development of a new sheriff’s office and detention center in the back parking lot of the courthouse.
“In any event, there’s not enough room,” Lichty said. “We hit a brick wall. The pine trees, the historic significance of the courthouse area … ”
At that point, the county began researching the idea of a justice facility with a “could go anywhere” mindset.
The need for a new facility is clearly addressed, and not just by lack of space. Based on projected numbers from the county’s current and past criminal justice activity, Lichty said the county is teetering on the edge of going from a one-courtroom to a two-courtroom county. According to RBC Undersheriff Mike Joos, a 2006 study indicated a need for a 56-bed jail.
Safety is probably the greatest factor in the needs assessment.
The national standard for modern-day jails housing more than six inmates requires automatic release locks. The current county jail houses 16 inmates, without automatic locks.
Cost is another major factor in the needs assessment. Not the cost of building a new justice center, but the money spent by the county to manage an overcrowded jail.
“On a day-to-day basis they have multiple inmates at other jurisdictions at a cost to the RBC taxpayers, on top of that they have to go get those inmates and bring them here for court dates, meetings with public defenders, etc,” Lichty said.
In contrast, he explained, several counties across the country have built jails specifically as revenue generators, using their spare beds to “rent” rooms for inmates to other counties with overcrowing problems. In Goshen County, Wyo., for example, their justice center nets the county more than a million dollars a year in revenue.
Lichty said the elementary school site is “perfectly located for what we’ve seen around the country for criminal justice centers.”
He presented a computer-generated rendering of what the site might look like converted into a justice center. The proposed design includes a two-story building with 271 parking spaces. It would close Fifth Street between Main and Park streets, extending the green space around the courthouse, and providing a secure environment for law enforcement that would separate the public from uncontrolled contact with the inmates both outside and inside the building.
“When you move a justice facility away from the downtown hub, you take something away from the downtown area.”
“In some of these little towns that have moved their justice center out of town to avoid a fight, pretty soon a store goes up, and then they’re nailing up plywood on the fronts of the stores downtown. I don’t want to see that here. On court days, stores fill up, restaurants fill up,” said County Commissioner Joe Collins.
After reviewing the presentation, Meeker Mayor Mandi Etheridge said, “I think there is a huge misperception in our town of what the county is talking about when they talk about the need for the justice center. I think this building is gorgeous, but it’s going to be a hard sell.”
Collins agreed. “If the town decides this is a viable project, we can hold some meetings and explain to the community how we’ve come to this point.”
“When it’s a little bit controversial, the tendency is for the project to go to the industrial park,” Lichty added. “A jail is not something people usually think about.”
But people are thinking about it now. Even though they’ve walked, or driven, past the current county jail every day for months or years without a second thought.

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