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Court-ing Trouble?

Mixing criminal court and administrative duties in the same building creates a few issues.

Every Tuesday and Thursday Harrison’s Municipal Building changes character. From a quiet administrative center, the building morphs into a busy center for the town's criminal court.

The court hearings play out in the same room that town hall meetings take place, but you would be hard pressed to see any other similarities. Street-side, from 8 a.m. on, it’s nearly impossible to get a parking space. Police cars, visitors’ vehicles and prisoner transfer vans line the street. Inside the lobby, a walk-through metal detector screens visitors as they enter and bags are searched. There are additional security personnel brought in and prisoners and their families all pass through the lobby on their way to their hearings.

Harrison's Police Chief Anthony Marraccini said between one and 12 prisoners are transported to the building each court day. They schedule most speeding and other traffic infringement hearings on Thursdays. The more serious charges—which include everything from misdemeanors and violations to homicide—are heard on Tuesdays.

Marraccini cited one prisoner charged with assault in Harrison who had been charged 150 times in New York State, some of those charges being violent felonies. Marraccini ssaid St Vincent’s Hospital also brings in people from different areas with serious mental health issues or substance abuse, that in turn bring additional criminal elements into the community.

The transportation of prisoners generally requires two officers for each prisoner. Additional security personnel are required in the building lobby and in the courtroom. Due to cost-cutting measures, the HPD has enlisted unarmed civilian personnel to assist with these security measures. Prisoners have leg shackles and hand restraints to ensure they are no harm to themselves, other prisoners or to the general public. 

Marraccini said any unruliness in the courtroom is dealt with quickly and the police have never had to use tasers; the threat of using them being enough to subdue any major problems.

But there is little doubt the use of the civilian building poses problems. There is no secure holding cell at town hall and shackled prisoners mix with residents who arrive with regular business at town hall, in addition to administrative staff. Apart from the prisoners themselves, the court hearings can also draw large crowds of family or supporters from out of the area, both of which can be problematic.

Harrison Mayor/Supervisor Ron Belmont has a story about the uneasy mix of the municipal building’s functions. He said one day he was coming into work in his previous position in the recreation department and saw several very large, very intimidating men in orange prisoner jumpsuits and leg shackles shuffling through the lobby on their way into court. Staff members—including Belmont—raised eyebrows at their size, and were glad to see the restraints on their hands and ankles.

Problem was, Belmont said, 15 minutes later at their court hearing the men were given bail, at which time they changed clothes in the municipal building's bathrooms and then sat in the lobby for the rest of the day, much to the discomfort of the staff who had seen them earlier. The story always gets a laugh, but highlights the difficulties with mixing courtroom and municipal functions in one building.

Marraccini maintains that the ideal solution to these issues is to have the current police station extended to include a courthouse. The transporting of prisoners would be more efficient between county jails and the local precinct, holding cells and staff would already be in place and everything could be done under one roof. But with the town's tight finances no one sees this, or any other solution, materializing in the near future.

In the meantime, we continue to live with this odd mix of functions at our town’s administrative center and trust that the security measures in place are enough to ensure the security of everyone involved.

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