Jail expansion gets $24M
Vail, CO Colorado
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” After months of controversy surrounding the $24 million expansion of the overcrowded County Justice Center, county commissioners approved the financing and construction for the project Tuesday.
The decision followed several years of planning, a survey that showed Eagle County citizens would not support a tax to fund the project, and criticism from opponents who claim the project is too expensive.
And a supporter, Eagle County Judge Thomas Moorhead, said the space will be used immediately, and many officials anticipate needing more expansion in the future.
The Justice Center agencies ” the Sheriff’s Office, District Attorney’s Office, and district courts ” made their cases to the public as to why the expansion is necessary.
The cramped quarters at the Justice Center are far more than a nuisance, and keep the agencies from doing their jobs, they said.
The fifth district court has far outgrown the Justice Center’s three courtrooms, said Judge Thomas Moorhead.
“Every square foot of the (new) facility is going to be immediately occupied,” he said.
There are five judges, and the existing courtrooms are too small, and the original jury room is being used as a staff room by administration employees, he said.
The courtrooms only have enough space for two litigating parties, while most modern trials have at least three parties. Lawyers and clients end up sitting at card tables and tech staff are seated on the floors, Moorhead said.
There aren’t any private jury quarters or places for attorneys to meet with clients ” what should be private conversations end up happening in the hallway, attorneys said.
Expansion plans will also add about 50 beds to the overflowing jail.
Right now the jail has to keep an average of 20 prisoners a day at other jails, said County Attorney Bryan Treu.
Not including the cost of transportation, that is costing the county about $500,000 each year, he said.
The overflowing jail is also a problem that is not only hampering Sheriff’s deputies in their work, but creating a public safety threat, county officials said.
Many courts use a work-release program, where offenders can leave the jail to see family and go to work, but must return to the jail.
Because of jail conditions, judges are letting those offenders out on probation instead. The situation is similar with repeat DUI offenders, said Judge Frederick Gannett
“As a tool, we don’t have the ability to use what I believe is the most important form of punishment for a local community,” he said of the work-release program.
District Attorney Mark Hurlbert testified to the “packed” conditions at his office. The staff, including himself, share offices, and once the new facilities are completed, he expects the staff will “just fit in it.”
“Our need is critical at this point. This is the right decision,” he said.
The officials all agreed the expansion will only be a temporary fix, and that more room will probably be needed in the near future. The current project plans were whittled down to fit the budget.
“Everyone had to have a little give and take for what we could live with and without,” Sheriff Joe Hoy said.
The project, which will add 31,000 square feet of new space and remodel 19,000 square feet of space, is considered the first phase of the expansion.
The plans are designed to accommodate for future expansion when it is needed, County Manager Bruce Baumgartner said.
When that expansion will be needed depends on how quickly the county’s population grows, and future immigration policy, he said.
Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2928 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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