700 Percent Increase in Court Cases Necessitates Expansion of Justice Facilities in Jasper County
By Bridget Bauer
With the Jasper County Court facilities becoming pathetically inadequate and unsafe, and the Jasper County Jail becoming extremely overcrowded, the citizens of Jasper County can remedy this April 2, 2019.
On that day, voters can go to the polls to decide on Proposition 1 and, if approved, will extend the current county-wide sales tax an additional 15 years to improve the Joplin and Carthage court facilities and expand the county jail. In 2016, the voters approved a 1/4-cent sales tax for the purposes of building a juvenile center in Joplin and renovating the exterior of the Carthage Courthouse. In phase two, the plans are to build a new Joplin Courts building in the same location; renovate, add a courtroom and provide security at the Carthage courthouse and expand the Jasper County jail. This includes adding 70 beds, a treatment wing and additional rooms for officials to conduct interviews.
“We want to design a criminal justice and judicial system which is efficient and will meet the needs of the citizens of Jasper County for the next 50-75 years,” Erik Theis, court administrator for the 29th Judicial Circuit, said.
Extending the current sales tax is a continuation and will not increase it. It would end in 2038 or whenever the projects are completed, whichever comes first. Projected to generate $4 million annually, nearly two-thirds of the revenue would come from people outside of the county when working or visiting the county.
“If we don’t take advantage of this opportunity, we will significantly disrupt the function of the judicial system,” Theis, said. “The Jasper County Judiciary focuses on the individuals, families and businesses who need the courts to achieve justice and resolve disputes. Strong courts build strong communities, and over the years, Jasper County Court facilities have become woefully inadequate in providing safe and appropriate space for the courts to conduct business and provide services to the community.”
Below are some bullet points Theis compiled to show how the current system is inadequate and unsafe:
Joplin Courts Building
- The Joplin Courts Building opened in 1975. That same year, approximately 2,100 cases were filed with the court. In 2017, nearly 17,000 cases were filed (over 700 percent increase).
- Over the years, the facility has been repurposed several times to accommodate growth. Due to the continued swelling of cases, inadequate space exists, which significantly hampers the judiciary’s ability to deliver justice.
- The current building is not ADA compliant, the HVAC systems are antiquated, and inadequate, structural issues exist including cracks in the foundation and walls.
- Inmates appearing for court are escorted in public hallways and staircases, which increases flight risks and significantly compromises the safety of law enforcement and the public.
- Due to limited space, witnesses and victims waiting for court hearings must sit by the alleged perpetrators, which comprises the legal process.
- Mistrials occur because the facility cannot separate the jury from the accused. Jurors share bathrooms with the accused and their families.
- Security capabilities are currently limited. This is a safety issues as described above.
- This historical building is a jewel of the county. The interior finishes are worn and need upgrading.
- Lacks adequate courtrooms so jury trials and other hearings can be conducted.
Jasper County Jail
- Since 2015, the Jasper County Jail has exceeded maximum capacity. Last year, the average daily population was 233. Jail capacity is 183.
- This creates enormous strain on facility operations.
- Overcrowding prevents jail staff from appropriately classifying inmates, increasing the risk for fights and other disturbances, which places deputies at risk.
- Overcrowding increases the risk of litigious action against the county.
- The jail has inadequate visitation and other administrative spaces.
- Currently, one visitation room exists for attorney-contact visits. As a result, attorneys do not have access to their clients, which causes delays in the judicial process.
- Space does not exist for probation and parole officers, court officials, and substance abuse and mental health professionals to conduct their jobs or provide services to the sheriff’s office.
- The number of mentally ill and persons with substance abuse inundate the jail. These individuals typically get involved in the criminal justice system because they have not received appropriate treatment in the community.
- Research shows there are alternative methods to deal with individuals with mental health or substance-use disorders than incarceration.
- Incarceration is extremely expensive and does not treat the underlying issues of mental illness and substance-use disorder.
- Because these individuals do not receive treatment, once they are released from jail, they often time recycle through the system, which is a burden to police, jail systems and the courts.
“It really needs to pass,” Teddy Steen, executive director of ASCENT Recovery Residences, said. “The courthouse is not safe and is terribly intimidating if you aren’t used to the system. The bottom line is we have an opportunity to get this done with no additional burden to taxpayers and create a safer community!”