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Security changes expected for new county judge

As preparations to add a fourth judge continue, the St. Croix County Finance Committee gave the go-ahead to spend about $26,000 on court equipment and modifications.

The biggest expense will be equipping and wiring two rooms in the jail to allow prisoners to make their initial court appearances by video.

Only two of the four courtrooms in the Government Center have secure access from the jail, said Sheriff Dennis Hillstead.

Rather than shepherding "15 people in orange suits" through public areas and up the elevator to the second floor courtrooms, it seems safer to use video-conferencing for first appearances, said Hillstead. The equipment will be installed in two jail classrooms. Public defenders will sit with prisoners during intake.

Hillstead said mingling the public and inmates poses a risk for both.

Initial appearances can be volatile anyway, said Judge Scott Needham. He said the events that led to the arrest may have happened just the night before, "emotions are still running high" and victims may be waiting for court in the hallways.

Clerk of Court Lori Meyer said it will cost about $15,000 to equip and wire the jail rooms and about $7,000 for wiring and equipment in the courtrooms. Her 2008 budget has money for the courtroom work.

Hillstead said the $15,000 needed for jail work could be taken from the Jail Assessment Fund.

Judge Needham, who will move to Courtroom 2 when the new judge is seated Aug. 1, asked that a row of spectator benches be removed from his new courtroom to increase the size of the "well" between the lawyers' tables, the jury box and the judge's bench.

He said defendants have been known to try to influence or intimidate jurors when the two are too close. Also, said Needham, increasing the well area "greatly improves the overall functioning of the courtroom."

Once the change is made, Courtroom 2 will have four rows of benches, the same as his current courtroom, said Needham. He said he has never had a trial that filled that space.

The Finance Committee also voted to spend up to $4,048 to improve speaker systems in all four courtrooms.