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Baltimore City's circuit courthouses under review

Baltimore’s two circuit courthouses are inefficient, unsafe and in some respects near the end of their useful lives, a consultant told the city’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council Wednesday afternoon.

Michael Griebel got no argument from Administrative Judge Marcella A. Holland.

“Everyone agrees the buildings are absolutely terrible, and [we] need new ones,” Holland told the CJCC.

The questions that remain unanswered are how to upgrade the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse and the Courthouse East building across Calvert Street, how much it will cost and where those hundreds of millions of dollars will come from.

While any new courthouse complex might be a decade or more away, there are people seriously investigating the possibilities, Holland told the group.

Enter Griebel, of AECOM Inc., the Los Angeles-based facilities consultant that has been conducting a $600,000-plus feasibility study on the future of the circuit courthouses since summer. Funds for the study, split between the circuit court and the city, were approved by the city’s Board of Estimates on Sept. 2.

In a whirlwind PowerPoint presentation to the CJCC, Griebel identified the most serious problems with the buildings, emphasized that they ought to be corrected soon and said potential savings associated with modernized facilities might offset the renovation and construction costs.

Using courthouse floor plan diagrams, Griebel showed how criminal defendants, cross paths with courthouse workers and the general public, creating regular security hazards. He said “wayfinding,” especially for inexperienced users of the courthouse, is “very difficult and stressful.” And many crucial building systems, such as the electrical, emergency lighting, plumbing and elevator systems, are “near the end of life,” he warned.

Among the other issues that would have to be taken into consideration in renovating the 109-year-old Mitchell building and in designing a new courthouse are disability accommodations, the security threat posed by on-site mail sorting, and what space needs will grow over time in addition to those that might shrink as paper files become electronic.

Since Griebel’s group began work in June, they have taken laser-aided measurements of the courthouses and conducted 130 interviews with department heads to determine how the courthouse functions now, and how it might eliminate duplication and the delays that litigants and lawyers have come to accept as normal.

Griebel said he would present again in mid- to late-fall and that the feasibility study’s final report and recommendations would come next spring.

While no plans are definite at this point, Holland said what looks most likely is the renovation of the Mitchell building, the conversion of Courthouse East into an office building and the construction of a new courthouse better equipped to handle the city’s massive criminal caseload. Where the new building might sit is also under consideration.

Some are cynical about all the new courthouse talk because the buildings have been ailing for years now, and experts have been called in before to analyze the possibilities. A 2002 needs assessment found fault with the buildings’ ventilation, plumbing, electrical, fire safety and telecommunication systems, but only piecemeal renovations have been undertaken since.

Whereas that study was about needs, Holland said, this one is about space.

“You have to show that you need a new building,” Holland explained, but “needs analysis doesn’t get you in anybody’s budget.”

“You have to have a programming study first,” Holland continued. “The programming study shows you really how much the building will cost.”

Holland said AECOM will play some role in identifying potential funding sources, which will likely include state bonds, because the city cannot fund a new courthouse by itself.

“Then it’s a sell job, it’s a lobby job,” Holland said.

Public defender looks forward

Earlier in the meeting, Interim State Public Defender Elizabeth L. Julian spoke briefly on the “extraordinary” series of events over the past few weeks at her office, during which her predecessor Nancy S. Forster was fired by the board of trustees.

“We’ve lost a passionate advocate,” Julian said without identifying Forster by name. Julian said her goal is to maintain the “independence and integrity” of the office and that neither the personnel changes nor the budget crunch will deter her lawyers from their constitutional mission to representing indigent people accused of crimes.

“We’re looking forward,” she said. “We’re looking to the future.”