Trials and Tribulations. (Courts/Prisons)

By Kirch, John F. | Security Management, May 2003 | Go to article overview

Trials and Tribulations. (Courts/Prisons)


Kirch, John F., Security Management


Richland County, Ohio, improved courthouse security and prisoner monitoring and saved its taxpayers more than $1 million.

The Richland County Courthouse had become an unpredictable place to work or visit. Although the three-story building in Mansfield, Ohio, was supposed to be a place where victims of violent crime came to get justice, it was sometimes the location of more violence that put these victims--and even judges-in harm's way. It was not uncommon, for example, for a criminal defendant to suddenly attack his accuser or for the parents involved in a child custody battle to begin fighting. In one case a few years ago, it took nearly twelve sheriff's deputies to stop a ruckus that had broken out in one of the courtrooms.

TO MAKE MATTERS WORSE, the county did not have space in its overcrowded jail to detain many of these assailants. Defendants who were awaiting trial or those who had been convicted of a crime were often sent to jails in neighboring counties because there was no room in the Richland facility. Those neighboring county accommodations came at a heavy cost to county taxpayers, who were paying thousands of dollars a day in relocation fees that were eating into Richland's criminal justice budget.

Dave Leitenberger, the chief probation officer for Richland County, says the combination of violence in the courtroom and overcrowding in the jail was putting a tremendous strain on the courthouse. The situation forced the county to come up with new programs. "We've done a lot to be proactive," says Leitenberger.

These proactive steps include more than a dozen programs that use a combination of security technology and social programs. Together, they have saved the county money, eased the overcrowding problems at the 110 bed jail, and provided additional protection for everyone who uses the courthouse.

Three of the most successful programs are a panic alarm and surveillance system that has been installed in each courtroom; an electronic monitoring system that allows the county to keep close track of violent offenders who are released from prison either on bond or probation; and an electronically monitored detention house, where certain convicts are permitted to stay on probation as a way to keep them out of the jail.

Each of these programs has earned Richland a reputation as one of Ohio's most progressive counties. And in 2001, the county's electronic monitoring program was honored with the prestigious Directors Award from the state Department of Rehabilitation, which issues the plaque to one county each year for outstanding service to the community.

Panic alarm system. The county's two criminal courtrooms are located on the third floor of the courthouse. The three judges who work there hear about 2,200 cases each year, including everything from minor felonies to narcotics and homicide cases. As noted, some cases have resulted in violent outbreaks.

Before the upgrade, the courtrooms were normally protected by only one unarmed bailiff, who could quickly become overwhelmed if a fight involved more than two people. The sheriff's office would provide backup, but its office is located in the basement, four floors below. When an incident erupted, it could take more than four minutes for deputies to learn about and respond to the violence--and when they arrived at the courtroom, they often entered not knowing how many people were involved in an incident or whether weapons were in the room.

To find a solution, the county created a four-man committee that included Leitenberger, Lieutenant Ed Welsh of the sheriff's department, Mike Casto, an administrator in the juvenile court, and Roger Paxton, administrator of the jail. The committee held informal interviews with key courthouse employees to determine what they saw as the problem and how it could be resolved.

Employees agreed that they did not want to restrict public access to the building with stringent access control and metal detectors at the front doors. …

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