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New jailhouse courtroom needs more thought, input

The New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, NMCDLA, is deeply concerned with Bernalillo County’s intention to build a jailhouse courtroom.

Apparently, the county is in the advanced stages of planning this project and has earmarked a considerable amount of funds to see it through. Our members cannot help but feel a little disappointed that such a significant development in our community’s criminal justice infrastructure is moving forward without any input, or any attempt to seek input, from the criminal defense bar or the public.

It is important to step back for a moment and look at this proposal through a wider lens. Historically, the placement, design and construction of courtrooms has been based on the constitutional principles that underpin our criminal justice system.

It is no accident American courthouses are centrally located buildings that are open to the public and easily accessible. Unlike other countries where the justice system can be closed or kept hidden from public view, the Constitution demands a different approach.

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This is demonstrated in the architecture of the courtroom, which has remained substantially the same since 1791, and is guided by the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments. Social Ideology as Seen through Courtroom and Courthouse Architecture (October 1, 1998) Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts, Vol. 22, No. 463, 1998.

Its design is deliberate in that it allows for a public seating area, a place for the judge to sit alone without prosecutorial interference, and an unbiased neutral area for the litigants, who are presumed equal under the law. It is also no accident that the location of an American courthouse is typically in a place considered unbiased and open to public scrutiny.

This open forum is essential for public trust and respect for the administration of justice. These principles have historically trumped financial expediency and security considerations not because they achieve some aesthetic purpose, but because they have been considered an important part of our democracy. Placing a courtroom in a jail located on a desert mesa, many miles from the city, is an unambiguous step in the wrong direction.

With this in mind, it is clear the county is embarking on a project that has wide-reaching social implications, yet it is doing so without input from those who arguably know most about its negative consequences.

It is also important the county taxpayers know, before the money is spent, that the project will likely result in litigation.

Given the gravity of the issues at hand, NMCDLA will not sit by idly and watch citizens be subjected to legal hearings in a secure, non-public facility.

We will insist the constitutional principles that have existed for over 200 years will not be lost just because it is cheaper to hold hearings in a jail. The lack of access to MDC, its distance from the county seat, the security restrictions on its visitors – whether witnesses, family members, crime victims or advocates – will all need to be subjected to judicial review.

In short, NMCDLA believes this attempt to save money on transportation costs will eventually do nothing of the kind. The county is in danger of spending much-needed resources on infrastructure that in all likelihood will not be used.

I caution us all to watch out when the government starts to incrementally chip away at things we take for granted. A neutral independent courthouse located in the center of the community is a democratic requirement that should not be gradually eroded away. As soon as a jailhouse courtroom is built, pressure will exist to use it for more and more hearings in more and more contexts.

We therefore urge the county to reconsider its decision to embark on this new style of jailhouse courtroom, or at the very least engage in a public debate on the issue before more money is spent.

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