Thursday, July 26, 2018

Houston's white elephant

One of the casualties of Hurricane Harvey was the Harris County Criminal Justice Center - a 20-story white elephant that has had a laundry list of problems since it opened less than 20 years ago.

Now comes word that it is going to cost some $86 million to repair and upgrade the building before it can be re-opened to the public. But, as a colleague pointed out this morning on Twitter, no bids have gone out for the repair work and the idea that the jobs can be bid out and completed in less than 2 years seems a little bit absurd.

The design of the building and the placement of offices and courtrooms never made much sense to anyone who has spent any amount of time inside the courthouse. The building has long been plagued with long lines at security and at the elevators as well as maintenance issues with those same elevators. Stairwells - necessary in case the building needed to be evacuated - were located behind closed doors and out of reach for anyone other than court staff or attorneys.

And while I understand that it is cheaper to build upward in Houston rather than outward, the basic design of a skyscraper and the functionality of a courthouse aren't congruent.

But these concerns are ignored because there is no viable constituency for a new courthouse. The taxpayers don't want to spend any additional money building a new courthouse for the benefit of criminal defendants. Unless they find themselves inside the building, they have no clue how useless it is.

So now for at least the next year-and-a-half (and likely a lot longer), misdemeanor courts will continue to be doubled up in the decrepit old Family Law Center while defendants who can't post bond will sit and wait for even longer in the county jail for their day in court. And that day will only get bumped back further and further when you consider that there is one trial court for every four misdemeanor courts. You do the math. Attorneys and defendants will continue to have to depend on two elevators to service 7 floors and 17 courts.

The felony courts will continue their uneasy alliance with the family courts in the Civil Courthouse where the elevators are proving to be as inadequate as those in the old criminal courthouse.

Attorneys and defendants will continue having to deal with split dockets in multiple courthouses and the inherent delays.

And good luck figuring out where the hell the district clerks or prosecutors are since they are spread over multiple office buildings throughout the city.

This is the living embodiment of insanity -- doing the same thing over and over again thinking it will somehow come out different this one time.

See also:

"Proposal for problem-plagued criminal justice center: Start Over," Chris Tritico, Houston Chronicle (10/16/17)

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