Riverhead Town’s justice court has long been cramped, overcrowded, unsafe and in need of wholesale overhaul, but the town’s troubled finances have kept it from finding a solution.
Just before Town Councilwoman Catherine Kent took office in January of 2018, she was overwhelmed by the condition of the town’s court, crammed into a corner of its Howell Avenue police station, when she was given a tour by court employees. She vowed to devote herself to rectifying the town’s facilities for meting out justice.
“When I saw what was happening over there, I was shocked,” she told town justices, engineers and board members at a Jan. 17 work session discussion on what can be done about the court. “Before I got the tour, I really had no idea what a desperate situation it was….Obviously, this is long overdue, and it has to be done.”
Town Justices Allen Smith and Lori Hulse didn’t mince words when describing their working conditions, though Judge Smith, who has been on the bench there since the year 2000, seemed more weary of the conversation than Judge Hulse, who has been in office since 2016.
“I would tell you we’re crowded, we’re moving prisoners in and out amongst jurors, we couldn’t hire another staff member because they would have to sit in somebody else’s lap,” said Judge Smith, adding that the justice court space, at 2,700-square-feet, is about the size of an average single-family home in Riverhead.
Judge Hulse requested that any new space include two full-size courtrooms. Right now, she said, trials have to be adjourned when drug court uses the existing courtroom, juries deliberate in the courtroom, precluding it from other uses, and arraignments disrupt the flow of the already overburdened court calendar, which handles roughly 175 cases per day.
“The volume is tremendous,” said Judge Hulse. “In neighboring jurisdictions, three to four judges are handling the same caseload.”
She added that Riverhead handles juvenile cases for the whole East End.
The judges are certainly not the only ones burdened by the Riverhead justice court experience. The courtroom often cannot hold all the people who have cases to be heard on a given day and attorneys discuss cases with their clients in the packed hallway, filled with people waiting to enter the courtroom, waiting at the window to pay fines, and with police officers bringing prisoners in for their court dates.
“Where the staff is working is way too small,” said Judge Hulse. “There are files as high as the ceiling — there’s nowhere to put them. We don’t have a cashier, so a clerk goes up to the window to handle payments, in full view of the entire staff, and it can disrupt the entire office. When juries have to deliberate, for hours or for days, we can’t use the courtroom because that’s where they deliberate. No court work can be conducted.”
Several potential solutions have been floated over the past decade, but all carry hefty price tags, and each deals with potential future increases in court workload in different ways.
The three options include building a second story on the existing police department and justice court building, moving the justice court functions into a new addition to be built at town hall, or renovating the massive New York State National Guard Armory on Route 58, which was given to Riverhead Town by New York State in 2011 with a deed covenant that it only be used for police and justice court functions.
The Armory option, converting the 40,000-square-foot building into court and police functions, would be by far the most expansive, but it came with a hefty price tag of $13 million when first pitched to the town board in 2014 — including $3 million for lead and asbestos abatement.
The second story expansion of the existing police and justice court building would cost about $8.5 million, and would add about 15,000 square feet of space, bringing the total space to just over 31,000 square feet.
The town hall expansion proposal would cost $6.3 million and add 7,800 square feet of space, and would also include much-needed roofing, lighting, sewerage and HVAC updates to the aging town headquarters.
Consultants hired by the town have estimated the police department and justice court would need at least 29,700 square feet of space to satisfy all the programatic needs.
Councilwoman Jodi Giglio pointed out that the town’s lack of a balanced budget in recent years since the economic downturn has kept the board from going forward with improvements, but said that as the town pays down debt and gets into a stronger financial position, “going forward, the cost to convert the armory would not add additional burden to the taxpayers.”
She added that the potential $40 million sale of the Enterprise Park at Calverton could further bolster the town’s financial position.
Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said she’s not sure if the plans already prepared have “fully incorporated the needs of the courts and the police department” going forward. She proposed that the town plan to float a 20-year bond next year to pay for the construction.
“Let’s take the location out of the equation and find out just what our space needs are,” she said. “The number of cases is increasing every year. We need an apples to apples tabulation.”
Judge Smith, who left the work session for much of the discussion to check on a jury at the courtroom, seemed exasperated by that suggestion.
“Quite frankly, we’ve done it before,” he said. “The town board voted to hire architects, who did a lot of work, spent a lot of time with a lot of people to get a needs assessment done. I’m not sure why we need another one.”
“We’re starting at such a low level that any improvement will be better,” he added, though he did say that he believes a town hall expansion project would be “putting lipstick on a pig.”
“The town has, for years, been on the cheap,” he said. “The idea of doing a needs assessment was so the facility would be designed and built for the next 25 to 30 years. I’ll stand by those numbers. I will sit down with engineering, but I don’t wish to waste my time.”
Councilman Jim Wooten also said he wasn’t crazy about including the justice court in a town hall expansion.
“I like that the police department and the courts are in the same facility,” he said. “The general public shouldn’t have to go through people waiting to see their probation officer to do business at town hall.”