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Justice is getting a new home in Lincoln County

Posted: Friday, Aug 3rd, 2012

KEMMERER — Shortcomings in existing jail and court facilities have prompted the development of a new complex. The Lincoln County Justice Center will be more functional, cost efficient, and safer than current structures, and will replace the existing jail facility and offer the county court and government offices room to expand.

Built in 1977, the current jail facility is outdated and becoming dangerous. The foundation of the structure that houses the jail has sunk at one end, endangering the entire facility. Antiquated sewer lines frequently clog and back up, resulting in flooding and gases that pose a threat to the building and the health of prisoners and employees. A recent $250,000 retrofit to the existing lines has lessened the severity of the problem, but has not completely alleviated it. Recent repair and maintenance costs have averaged anywhere from $100,000-$200,000 per year.

If the current jail facility is shut down due to health and safety concerns, which, according to Commissioner Connelly is a real possibility, transporting prisoners to facilities in neighboring cities would cost approximately $1.5-$2 million annually.

Aside from cost issues, social and further safety issues also encouraged the development of the project. The jail currently has a single holding area, which makes separating hostile detainees difficult. It also presents a problem in the event police need to hold mentally ill individuals or juveniles. Title 25 of Wyoming Health Code requires that individuals deemed unfit to care, or are a danger to themselves or others, must be separated from the general population and given proper medical and/or psychiatric care. It is also recommended that juveniles be separated from other inmates and detainees, as there is an increased rate of recidivism in those housed with general adult population.

In addition to more jail space, there is a sore need for more offices at the courthouse. Public defenders, guardians ad litem, and several auxiliary county offices are all sharing the existing offices at the courthouse, making it difficult for defendants to meet with council, and for departments to function at peak efficiency.

Security concerns were also taken into consideration in the planning stages of the new justice center. Current access from the jail to the courthouse takes inmates through public areas and employee offices. To secure existing routes, and address concerns regarding public access and response times, a recent security report recommended increasing staff to nearly double the present numbers.

Original plans to address these issues focused on updating and repairing the existing facility; however, multiple commissions and studies agreed that it would be more cost effective to construct a new facility. The county discussed possible land deals with the Chevron Corporation and the city of Kemmerer, but ultimately chose a different site based on development schedules and costs, as well as distance from residential areas and proximity to main highways. The chosen site, a 15.8-acre lot with existing water and sewer lines, purchased for $266,000, is located at the intersection of Highway 30 and Fossil Butte Drive, across from the port of entry.

The price tag for the new justice center has been set at $17 million, with $8 million coming from the county general fund, and the remaining $9 million being financed through the sale of bonds. The county examined the possibility of financing through an increased mill tax, but after conferring with the various cities in the county, and in deference to the current economic climate of the county, decided to avoid increasing taxes.

The proposed floor plan for the new justice center will include a 72-bed housing facility, multiple holding areas, secured outside areas for inmates, and secured entries and loading docks, meaning that the new facility will be able to operate at peak efficiency without the need to increase staff. It will offer more office space, easier public access, and an additional courtroom. The main courtroom of the existing courthouse will remain in use as the county’s primary judicial space, though the auxiliary court, crammed into a corner of an office in the main courthouse will be able to move to a larger space. Which county departments will move to the new facility, and which will remain in the main courthouse, is still under consideration, but either way they will have a lot more breathing room.

To address the growing disparity between the law enforcement needs of the county, and the quality of available facilities, the board of supervisors has pursued the planning and development of this project for approximately four years now, and estimates completion of the project in 2014. The new Lincoln County Justice center will offer more modern, safer, and more cost effective facilities than the current jail and courthouse can provide, while relieving the currently crowded, historic, main courthouse.

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