DuPage County eyeing $19.8 million building project at judicial complex in Wheaton
It's such a tight squeeze in the DuPage County public defender's office that some employees have resorted to sharing desks and working in hallways.
The dearth of office space has been a perennial issue for the county court system. But the crunch is expected to get tighter. The confluence of COVID-19 protocols, a steady rise in felony cases and sweeping state criminal justice reforms has DuPage officials clamoring for more staff and more room in the courthouse complex in Wheaton.
"At the same time, while we're trying to fill those positions, we are moving filing cabinets and other things to make room for these people," DuPage Public Defender Jeff York said. "We were approaching the breaking point several years ago, but we were always able to manage. Finally, we're at a point we can no longer feasibly continue in the space we occupy."
To address overcrowding, county board members will vote Tuesday on putting $5.4 million in federal coronavirus relief funds toward a proposed $19.8 million expansion project at the judicial center.
Plans include building renovations at a cost of $2.6 million. That work would make way for a new courtroom to handle an increasing number of domestic violence cases and a larger grand jury room to account for social distancing. Existing space also would be converted into another new courtroom because of a major criminal justice overhaul signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker last year.
The law eliminates cash bail beginning in 2023 and replaces it with a risk-based system for determining if people should stay in custody or go free while awaiting trial. DuPage officials say the anticipated length, complexity and volume of pretrial detention hearings require a new courtroom dedicated to those proceedings.
Among other provisions, the legislation mandates that police officers statewide wear body cameras by 2025. More than half the police departments in DuPage have obtained body cameras or will soon have the devices, DuPage State's Attorney Robert Berlin told county board members in December.
Berlin and York say their offices will need to hire additional staff to manage and review body camera data. The county's 2022 budget adds five prosecutors, 12 public defenders, and one secretary and one investigator to York's office.
"We have seen an exponential increase in digital media evidence, which not only we have to look at, but we share with the public defender's office and private attorneys," Berlin said.
Along with new personnel comes the need for more space, officials say. According to five-year projections, the state's attorney's office is looking to add an estimated 36 employees while the probation department could gain about a dozen as a result of the legislation and increased workload. The public defender's office is projecting 41 new hires in the years ahead.
"There just really is no place to put those people right now," said Jason Dwyer, president of design at Wight & Company, an architectural firm that's drawn up initial expansion plans. "They've already taken advantage of doubling up on desks, utilizing closets to try to fit people in anywhere they can to accommodate the staff."
The public defender and probation departments now share the first floor of a judicial building. Architects have recommended that probation offices take over the entire floor to separate juvenile and adult populations.
The third floor would be expanded across the second-floor roof to the east to accommodate the public defender's office. The project also would reconfigure work space for the state's attorney's office.
Those improvements, coupled with the expansion, are expected to cost $17.2 million.
"We believe that this is going to take care of the needs that we see for the next decade," said Chief Judge Kenneth Popejoy, who also pointed to the growth of the county while making the case for the project.
The county's financial planners say $5.4 million qualifies for COVID-19 relief money. So far, the county has received $89.6 million in American Rescue Plan funds, the first of two equal installments.
County board members have not yet decided how to pay for the rest of the two-year project.
"We feel confident that by the end of February, when we sweep the unspent money in the '21 budget as well as excess revenue from sales tax, we'll have a minimum of $5 million that we'll be able to sweep for this project," Chief Financial Officer Jeff Martynowicz said.
Other funding sources could include reserves or a possible bank loan.