Wise judge says courtroom security deteriorating

Stephen Igo • Apr 7, 2007 at 12:33 PM

WISE - When the Wise County Sheriff's Department moved out of the county courthouse to new digs out back, there went the Wise County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court neighborhood.

For years, the county's law enforcement headquarters and court shared a cozy relationship on the first floor of the courthouse. On Thursday, Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Judge Elizabeth Wills said patrons to her court tended to behave themselves because of the obvious presence of armed, uniformed deputies close to the sorts of potential drama that Wills said is fairly common in her court.

Now Wills said county officials must consider renovations to the courtroom - the same space used by the Board of Supervisors for its meetings - particularly to the hallway areas and court offices.

"We have the largest number of angry people here," Wills said of a court that deals daily with juvenile delinquency of one sort or another, and marital and custody disputes that often arrive before her bench on a high emotional pitch. "We need better security for this courtroom before somebody gets hurt. We've just got huge issues."

Wills made her request for renovations to supervisors during their Thursday workshop session.

Assistant County Administrator Shannon Scott said in-house maintenance personnel estimate the cost of renovations Wills recommends at around $20,000.

Wills suggests blocking off a portion of an existing hallway next to the court offices and courtroom for security purposes and to provide a secure place for those in police custody to await their court appearances.

She also urges removal of large glass wall panels on the hallway side of the courtroom in order to block off that area - visually and in other respects - and adding a restroom in the new secure area.

The added secure spaces will also help restrict what is now uncomfortable public access to court files, she said. When one walks into court offices these days, Wills said, "you are literally walking on top of juvenile files that are supposed to be kept secure."

Supervisor Virginia Meador asked if the sheriff's department provides enough bailiffs. Wills said the State Compensation Board stipulates the number of bailiffs to be assigned to her court. Generally, the judge said she has two bailiffs available, "if we're lucky enough to have another one."

But bailiffs are busy going to and fro escorting juveniles and others in custody, finding attorneys, and sorting out and keeping an eye on a sometimes volatile situation, she said.

"Sometimes they're just everywhere," Wills said of the bailiffs.

That hadn't been a big problem when the sheriff's department was just down the hall, but now that it has moved out "it's just not safe," she said. "We are very vulnerable here. We've been very, very fortunate."

Wills said Sheriff Ronnie Oakes is eager to provide more bailiffs, but the State Compensation Board has final say on bailiff assignments. Wills said she and Oakes would welcome supervisors to join their cause of convincing officials in Richmond to increase the number of bailiffs assigned to her court.

"When we lost the sheriff's department on this floor we lost our security," Wills said.

The wide-open layout of the courtroom - more amenable to public sessions of the Board of Supervisors rather than the security needs of a courtroom - also needs to be addressed, Wills said.

The public has ready access to juveniles and adults in custody, she said, telling supervisors "you would not believe" the contraband confiscated from parents, other family or friends mixing it up with a loved one wearing restraints and an inmate jumpsuit.

The often passionate nature of domestic disputes means violence often simmers just below the surface, the judge said. She credited the public with being the first line of defense in preventing potentially disastrous situations. Wills said it is common for people to call her court to warn that a person might be packing a firearm when they show up to iron out a domestic dispute.

The constant worry for the welfare of court personnel is bad enough, but Wills said the public is her top concern when it comes to security.

"I'm very concerned about the public," she said. "I'm not so worried about me, but someone could get hurt (in the gallery)."

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