October 20, 2011

Marin Says 'Yes' to Panic Button, 'No' to Closing Court

By Trey Bundy  |  The Bay Citizen  —  

After two years of contentious debate over how to improve security at Marin County’s juvenile court, attorneys, judges, law enforcement officers, and court officials finally came to an agreement this week. The court will add more surveillance cameras, a magnetic screener, and a panic button — the standard equipment found in courtrooms across the country.

But the announcement came after a string of unorthodox and controversial security proposals — and tens of thousands of dollars spent on now-abandoned plans — that drew harsh criticism from juvenile justice experts nationwide.

In 2009, citing increasing gang violence in Marin and the isolated location of the juvenile courthouse in Lucas Valley, Kim Turner, the executive officer of the Marin courts, began developing a plan to have young suspects appear in court via video conferencing technology from inside juvenile hall. According to public records, at least $42,000 was spent on video equipment before the plan was scrapped after youth advocates took the matter to court claiming civil rights violations.

Turner immediately went to work on a new proposal: a glass enclosure, inside of which young defendants would sit with their attorneys during court proceedings. But when Turner announced the plan in June of this year, defense attorneys and advocacy groups once again cried foul.

In a move that shocked attorneys, probation officials and county sheriffs, Turner abandoned the project in July amid what she called a “media crisis” and announced that the county’s only juvenile courtroom would be permanently shuttered. All future proceedings, she said, would be held at the adult courthouse, which has more bailiffs and tighter screening.

But that proposal was also met with opposition. Michael Daly, Marin’s chief probation officer, and other county officials argued that transporting young suspects four miles from juvenile hall to the adult courthouse each day would increase security risks and require a new bus and two additional security staff. Daly estimated the annual cost would reach “six figures.”

Daly and Captain David Augustus of the Marin County Sheriff’s Department appealed to court judges last month to allow the juvenile courtroom to remain open and simply install more security cameras, better screening equipment and a panic button. The judges agreed this week, and Daly said the improvements should be in place soon.

“No one is going to be dragging their feet,” he said. “I’m just glad that collectively we came to a resolution that all parties agreed to and is the most safe for kids.”

Turner could not immediately be reached for comment.