The Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce held a community priorities forum Thursday that brought local issues to light that are in need of priority funding from state legislation. One of the forum’s topics included the need for a new judicial center in Owensboro–something that’s been discussed at previous priority forums, but has not been selected as one of the top local needs.
According to Daviess County Sheriff’s Office and Circuit Court Judge Jay Wethington, the need for a new judicial center is at an all-time high right now. Issues with security, overcrowding and parking can create dangerous and uncomfortable situations for those who utilize the Morton J. Holbrook Jr. Judicial Center on East Second St.
DCSO Chief Deputy Sheriff Major Barry Smith said there’s a laundry list of issues facing the current judicial center.
“Judge Wethington brought up the need for a new center,” Smith said. “Overcrowding, the addition of two Family Court judges, limited parking, limitations on prisoner holding cells, having only one elevator. Sheriff Cain validated those are all valid concerns we have because we’re in charge of the building. Those issues do hurt us.”
DCSO maintains security for the building, including unarmed and armed bailiffs and security officers who work for low pay and even lower reimbursements from the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC).
“A big issue is that the AOC allows only so many hours of reimbursements at $9 an hour. Obviously, it costs us more than $9 an hour to keep those positions filled,” Smith said. “Their push is for a new building, but our concerns go beyond that.”
DCSO pays bailiffs $12 an hour, but Fiscal Court and the sheriff’s office are not being reimbursed by the AOC for that amount. To get the AOC to change the reimbursement rate would be very complicated, Smith said.
“It was $8 an hour for years, and it took a long time to get it to $9. Fiscal Court has worked with us to get salaries raised over there and they’re going to supplement us next year for it,” he said. “If the AOC would reimburse us at a livable wage, we wouldn’t have to pull from the County tax dollars and we wouldn’t have such a hard time keeping a full staff over there.”
Wethington said its space and security are hindering the current judicial center.
“We just don’t have enough space for everyone who participates. It’s a security issue for the public, and for the people who work in this building as well,” he said. “This building wasn’t built for security. That security detail at the front was added on. It’s not large enough for the volume of people who come through the building.”
Even more, there’s no space inside the building for security personnel to take breaks and have meetings, Wethington said. Essentially, they have nowhere to rest, have lunch or to discuss important matters while they work their shifts at the judicial center.
Having only one elevator inside the building is another cause for concern for Wethington and others who work inside the building on a daily basis.
“You could be riding up the elevator with someone you’re testifying against,” Wethington said. “We don’t have enough space to put the prisoners, and there have been concerns about the number of inmates being transported to the judicial center.”
Jury members don’t have meeting rooms either, Wethington said, making it uncomfortable for the large number of jury candidates who must conjure in cramped hallway spaces instead of a room that can comfortably seat them all.
There are also not enough employee parking spaces in the area, and residents are forced to find parking elsewhere in downtown Owensboro.
Smith said the center needs a full relocation.
“An assessment is needed by the AOC,” he said. “Improvements are needed for the future and those aren’t able to happen at that location. The Chamber of Commerce is going to narrow down what they want to go toward the legislation process.”
Wethington said a new building is needed too but isn’t sure whether a new judicial center would be kept in downtown Owensboro or elsewhere. Officials have spoken up about relocating it closer to the Daviess County Detention Center to ease the burden of transporting inmates back and forth.
“It’s up to us to let the Commonwealth know we need a center,” Wethington said. “We have to prioritize it as a need. There will be a lot of input on where it goes.”