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Will County's courthouse too small for big crowds

Published: Tuesday, June 24, 2014 1:15 a.m. CST

JOLIET (AP) – The chief judge in Will County, seeing the same lines of people snaking outside the Joliet courthouse, the same crowds of people packed into hallways and tiny courtrooms as anyone who has ever visited, is pushing for a new judicial complex.

“It is not built to handle this many,” Judge Richard Schoenstedt told the Southtown Star.

In fact, the courthouse that has handled some of suburban Chicago’s biggest trials, including the murder trial of former police Sgt. Drew Peterson, is woefully inadequate to handle the thousands of people who descend on it daily to stand trial, sit on juries, pay traffic tickets and seek orders of protection.

Built in 1969, when the county’s population was 175,000, the four-story building now must serve the needs of a county with a population of nearly 683,000. That has meant turning a building of six courtrooms, county offices and county board chambers into a judicial facility of nearly two dozen small courtrooms – some literally in spaces that were once closets and employee lounges.

The building is so crowded that prisoners must be moved from courtroom to courtroom in the same corridor used by judges, jurors, witnesses and police, creating a host of potential problems.

“If they [defendants] are angry and feel they have nothing to lose, they might lash out,” said Schoenstedt. And, he said, the mix of defendants and jurors might hurt defendants’ chance at a fair trial, because jurors could see them in shackles and assume they are guilty.

The county has purchased a nearby building and plans to demolish it to build a new court facility at a cost of as much as $200 million. The county is perhaps a couple of years from a new courthouse, in large part because it is still looking for money to pay for it.

But Schoenstedt was encouraged by a bill passed by state lawmakers and now on Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk awaiting his signature that would allow the county to collect a new court fee that could generate as much as $2 million a year for a new building.

“It’s a nice start,” Schoenstedt said.

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