White Pine County district judges Monday asked the Senate Finance Committee to pay for a new courthouse, saying the need is caused by Ely State Prison.
Ely houses Nevada's most dangerous prison inmates and has generated about 80 felony cases over the past two years. Gerald Gardner of the Nevada attorney general's criminal division said that is about half the total criminal cases from the prison system during that time.
Judge Dan Papez of Ely told the committee the county doesn't have the financial ability, with bonds or any other means, to pay for a new courthouse. He said the historic courthouse - built in1906 - is too cramped and creates a dangerous situation with jurors, defendants and witnesses just a few feet from each other.
"There is no room for the jurors to be kept separate from inmate witnesses and defendants," he said.
He said everyone from judges to defendants must use the same corridors, even bathrooms, creating a situation where violence could erupt at any time - especially since neither defendants or witnesses can be shackled when in the courtroom for constitutional reasons. He said jurors and witnesses have said they are fearful of the situation.
The inmates housed at Ely State Prison are the most violent, dangerous inmates in the prison and "when they go to prison, they don't stop committing crimes," he said.
The result is 40 or more trials a year in Ely. "The courthouse was never designed to handle this," he said.
Judge Steven Dobrescu said they are forced to maintain security by putting deputies and correctional officers with guns in the courtroom, halls and outside the building.
The county is requesting $8 million to build a new courthouse with proper security measures to handle trials in Ely. But Reno architect Terry Melby said he is now projecting that will have to be increased to $10.8 million.
Papez said the county is able to contribute the land and about $150,000 in cash, but beyond that has no money or ability to bond to help with the costs.
Senate Finance Chairman Bill Raggio, R-Reno, said it would be set a precedent if the Legislature decided to pay for the courthouse.
"The state has never in the history of the state funded the construction of a courthouse," he said.
The proposed courthouse would house two district courts and a justice court along with jury rooms, the clerk's office and space for the district attorney in a 30,000-square-foot building.
n Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at email@example.com or 687-8750.