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County justice goes high tech

"This is what the new Island County Law and Justice Center looked like a month ago, as construction proceeded at a full clip. The building is expected to be ready to move into by April.Mike Page-English, staff photoIt may seem ironic that security at the center for law and justice in Island County, the place where the county's worst criminals congregate on a regular basis, has long been inadequate.But change is on the way, in the shape of bullet-proof furniture and a skyway between the county jail and courtrooms.The new Law and Justice Center currently under construction in the middle of Coupeville will have high-tech equipment and materials, along with some common-sense measures, to help keep employees and the public safe and sound. It's a vast improvement over our current situation, Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley said. It's like night and day.The current courthouse features law and justice facilities on the top floor - such as the the courtrooms, judges' chambers, the prosecuting attorney and court clerk offices - with the auditor, treasurer and other county departments on the bottom floor.The Sheriff's Office, which is responsible for security of the courthouse, is across the street in the courthouse annex. Since the jail is also there, criminals have to be brought outside - where risk of escape and public danger is much greater - and walked through the courthouse hallways to go to court. Other departments, like Juvenile and Family Services and the Coroner's Office, are scattered in small buildings around town.There are multiple public entrances to the current courthouse, which Hawley said makes it virtually impossible to search all the people who enter or to keep the building very secure at all. There's only one metal detector in front of the two courtrooms, but it's seldom used because of inadequate staffing.Superior Court Judge Vicki Churchill said there have been times when she has felt a little unsafe on the bench. Both she and Judge Alan Hancock say they are even more uncomfortable about the risks to the public and what effect an unsafe-feeling environment can have on justice.Everyone who comes into the building should be assured they are entering a safe place, Hancock said.To create a safer environment, Anacortes architect Bryan Young gathered concerns and ideas from county law and justice officials to design the new building.Many of the changes seem like common sense. All of the county departments and facilities associated with law and justice will be moved together under the roof of the new Law and Justice Center.There will be only one public entrance to the new building. Hawley said the county plans to place a metal detector and X-ray machine at the entrance, but budget constraints make that a little uncertain. To run the equipment, he said there will likely be a deputy guarding the entrance full-time.Probably the only controversial part of the project is the skybridge that will connect the jail with the new courtrooms. Some Coupeville residents were concerned about the aesthetic effect the skyway will have on the historic county seat. But in the end, security concerns won over architectural considerations.Hawley said the skyway will allow deputies to escort jail inmates to the holding cells next to the courtrooms without ever leaving a secure, controlled environment.In fact, the entire building is designed so that there are physical separations between the public and private areas, both with separate keyed entrances.Other security features include a bulletproof lining in the judges' benches, which will also protect the clerk and court reporter's stations; judges' chambers with bulletproof windows; courtrooms without windows; panic alarms in all departments; and video cameras and lighting throughout the building.Along with security, the new building will give departments freedom from cramped spaces as well as the creature comforts of central heating and air conditioning.Both Hancock and Churchill, for example, say they've been embarrassed by the condition of the jury room for many years. Hancock said they've received many complaints about the small, shabby room with one inadequate bathroom.The new building will have a larger jury panel room and will use all the space available more efficiently, Hawley said. The county plans to move departments into the building next April. "

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