About 25 members of the Rotary Club of Hinesville got a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the Liberty County Justice Center on Tuesday, but they didn’t have to set foot inside the building.
That’s because Clerk of Courts Barry Wilkes, Sheriff Steve Sikes and Lt. James Caines, who oversees security at the justice center and the courthouse annex, presented a photographic tour of the facility, which opened in May.
Wilkes, Sikes and Caines spoke during lunch about the value of the new facility, and they focused on how security efforts played a large role in the facility’s design and operations.
“What we have created is a three-and-a-half-story building that I think provides an anchor to downtown Hinesville, gives us an identity for our county seat, but at the same time, addresses all the problems that you all have heard us talking about for years,” Wilkes said.
Problems in the old Liberty County Courthouse included too-tight quarters for offices and courtrooms, a lack of safety measures to separate judges and inmatesfrom the public and jury deliberation rooms that were within earshot of the public, Wilkes said.
He said the $19 million, 92,000-square-foot facility opened in May with four courtrooms for state and superior courts, one courtroom each for the magistrate and probate courts, and a jury assembly room. It also is home to Sike’s office and the clerk of the courts office, which occupies about 10,386 square feet.
“We describe the architectural design of the building as being cost-effective with touches of ornateness,” Wilkes said.
Much of the millwork inside the building utilized fabricated wood, which is more economical than pure wood.
The justice center is a “smart building” with all of its electrical, heating and air-conditioning governed by a central master computer controlled by the maintenance staff.
On average, the temperatures are set between 72 and 75 degrees, Wilkes said. At night, all but the external lights and those on the first floor are shut off.
Sikes said the facility has been “over the top” for those who inhabit it, exceeding their expectations. He added that the building’s efficient features should make it more economical than the old courthouse in the long run.
One advantage of the new facility is that judges have private access to the courtrooms, which reduces their time interacting with the public. In the old courthouse, judges, the public and inmates alike moved through common corridors and used the same elevators, which posed a potential risk to their safety.
The sheriff’s office also moves inmates to and from hearings out of the public eye, Caines said.
“No inmate comes into the public view until they hit the courtroom, which I think is very impressive,” he said. “In our other courthouse, we were stopping on the sidewalk, walking them into the courtroom where they needed to go, and we had a lot of people trying to break out that way.”
Last week, officers moved 41 inmates through the center in one day, he said. Each floor has one holding cell.
In other security measures, the building has 70-80 surveillance cameras and about 75 emergency buttons that can be pressed to alert the courthouse security team when trouble arises. Access to many parts of the building is controlled by digital keys, Caines said.
The new security system drastically reduces the chance that an inmate will escape, he added.
But the transition has not come without hiccups, according to the presentation.
A closed parking lot in the building’s rear is supposed to have an electric gate that restricts access to judges and Wilkes, but the gate has not been installed yet.
Another issue is that the facility is equipped with the technology necessary to hold virtual hearings, where defendants plead from jail, but that system is not in use, Wilkes said. One of the shortfalls is that the technology connections between the center and the jail have not been fully sorted out yet.
Another aspect holding up the technology is that the judges have not yet agreed upon a standard hearing process that ensures the defendants are treated with fairness and equal access to their attorneys’ input as they would be if they were in the same location, he said.
After the meeting, Rotary President Jeff Ricketson said he found the presentation worthwhile. He said he has been curious about the building but has not yet had the chance to visit it.
“It’s very informative to see how the building’s function follows its form in downtown,” he said.