SMITH COUNTY, Texas (KETK) — The current Smith County courthouse was built almost 70 years ago and the administration said the need for more space is dire.
“Our courthouse is very unsafe and it’s taking a lot of money to maintain it,” said District Attorney, Jacob Putman.
The $160 million bond proposal is on the ballot for November.
“The remodeling costs for this building are even higher per square foot than it would be to build a new courthouse. And if we remodeled every inch of this courthouse, we still wouldn’t have room for every courtroom to have a safe trial for victims, jurors, defendants,” said Putman.
The DA said there is an ongoing safety and security concern since the inmates are seated in the same area as the victims and their families.
The close proximity sometimes leads to jurors hearing conversations they are not supposed to which could lead to a mistrial.
Officials said the proposed courthouse would have separate entrances for the public, courtroom officials and inmates so less problems would occur.
“The prosecution and defense parties are very close together and very close to the jury and there’s very limited seating for the public,” said Putman.
The original courthouse had two courtrooms and now they have expanded to seven which some say limits space in the courtroom and for the offices.
“A domestic violence case in here and if you were abused by your partner, you’d be testifying from there and the person who abused you would be sitting five feet from you,” said Putman.
Some argue that jurors do not have adequate space for hours to even days on end to make critical decisions.
“We obviously don’t want jurors rushed because they are crammed in a small space. We want them to be able to take their time and get the right verdict, not hurrying along because there’s not room,” said Putman.
“We’ve had to add courts in both civil cases, family law cases, criminal cases. As we grow courts the DA’s office, my office has to grow because we have to have prosecutors for each of those courts and our case loads grow. We have to have enough people so our crime victims get the justice they deserve, “said Putman.
Smith County officials said the courthouse also has infrastructure problems such as cracks, asbestos and leaking plumbing.
“We are looking for adequate space, but it does say something about how much the citizens care about justice in their case. You come down to a courthouse you are proud of,” said Putman.
The bond proposal also includes a new parking garage closer to the courthouse for judges and jurors.
The construction for the garage is an additional $19 million for a total of $179 million for the proposal.