JOLIET – If Chief Judge Richard Schoenstedt is administering the oath to prospective jurors, he starts off with an apology.
“This is a terrible, terrible building. We need you and we treat you like dirt. Every surrounding county has better facilities,” he tells the 120 people who could spend most of the week sitting in a room crowded with plastic chairs, but no tables. There is one unisex bathroom nearby for all of them to use.
Carborsha Flowers, a Maywood resident who regularly comes in for an ongoing court case, agrees the building is “terrible.”
“You stand outside freezing while you wait to get in. There are no signs saying what you can and can’t bring in. I think a bigger waiting area would accommodate everyone more,” she said. “It’s much better in Maywood.”
Flowers also said the “bustle” of crowds in the upstairs hallways makes it hard to hear or find a place to sit near a particular courtroom.
An estimated 2,500 to 3,000 people walk through the doors of the Will County Courthouse every day, according to Schoenstedt. That figure doesn’t include the judges, lawyers, clerks, bailiffs and sheriff’s deputies who work there.
The county’s population was 175,000 when the current courthouse opened in 1969. Will County’s population is nearly four times that now, with 682,518 residents as of 2012. Based on those census results, the county should have 38 judges, according to the state Supreme Court.
“But we have no courtrooms to put them in, so we’ve only got 35 after adding one in 2012 and one in 2013,” Schoenstedt said.
Making the best of the
The courthouse originally housed several county offices that have been relocated to other buildings in the last four decades. Many of those spaces have been modified into courtrooms, as has the former snack shop which uses a single entrance for the judge, defendants and audience.
“If you’re in a courtroom with a window, it wasn’t originally a courtroom,” Schoenstedt advised.
Will County Sheriff’s deputies use a single elevator to bring about 90 inmates each day from the county jail to the fourth floor. Schoenstedt said inmates, jurors and judges share the same hallways behind the courtrooms, which causes security and mistrial concerns.
While criminal case volume is high, it isn’t high enough to make night court a viable option, Schoenstedt said.
Many old court files are stored off-site, but Circuit Clerk Pam McGuire has thousands of folders being checked in and out each day. Her offices also have become cluttered as paperwork stacks up.
“We’ve gotten a little better with electronic filing – having everything scanned and [forcing] people to come in less, but it’s still an issue,” McGuire said. Some of the electronic equipment is bulky and kept in poorly ventilated areas, she said.
The cost of justice
Neither Schoenstedt, McGuire or Denise Winfrey, the county board member who chairs the courthouse project committee, have heard from anyone who feels a new courthouse isn’t needed.
“No one is denying the need for a new courthouse,” Winfrey said. “One concern is where it will be, but that’s [dependent on] the biggest question – how are we going to pay for it?”
The county has some funding in place already, but with an expected cost of at least $140 million, much more will have to be raised. Schoenstedt has suggested “user fees,” which state Rep. Larry Walsh has proposed become law with an amendment to House Bill 5889.
The county recently hired Wight & Company to design and plan a new courthouse. During the next six to nine months the county will determine current and future expansion needs while taking disability access, state courtroom regulations and other legal requirements into account, Schoenstedt said.
Wight & Company also will study if building a campus site on undeveloped “green space” or revitalizing the closed Illinois Youth Center or Joliet Correctional Center would be more cost-effective than keeping the courthouse in a location downtown.
But Schoenstedt and Winfrey believe the proximity to the jail, state’s attorney and other offices make staying downtown a better choice. The county is expected to finalize purchase of the entire block west of the courthouse from First Midwest Bank this summer.
“The city of Joliet has told us keeping the courthouse downtown is a priority and they will definitely be working with us to support that however they can,” Winfrey said.
Mayor Tom Giarrante agreed.
“The influx of judges, attorneys, people going in and out of there is what helps our businesses and restaurants downtown,” he said. “The courthouse is a vital part of downtown Joliet.”
Wherever the courthouse is located, it could be built with the top few floors “shelled out” for future expansion or the building could be designed for the roof to become the next floor of additional expansion.
“Or it could expand horizontally with a design that builds what’s needed now and if you need more in 30 years, the space next to it has been [maintained] so it looks like a unified complex,” Schoenstedt said.