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Justice center is needed, but there are drawbacks

For years grand juries, sheriffs and consultants have been saying it: Tuolumne County badly needs a new justice center that would combine a larger jail, a juvenile hall and a modern sheriff's quarters with courts, the district attorney's office and the probation department.

Existing offices have outgrown cramped and scattered offices in downtown Sonora, the expert consensus was, and a new site to successfully handle the challenges of 21st century law and order is necessary.

Although little has been said publicly over the past months, county leaders have not ignored these recommendations. On Tuesday, after a comprehensive presentation from County Administrator Craig Pedro and his staff, the Board of Supervisors will be asked to launch the largest, most ambitious capital improvement project in Tuolumne County's 156-year history.

The Board will be asked to spend $4.2 million on nearly 50 acres off Old Wards Ferry Road. The acreage, outside the city limits, south of the Highway 108 Bypass bridge and behind the Crossroads shopping center, would be home for the county's new law and justice center for decades to come. Its first phase, to include the much-needed new jail, a sheriff's administration center, a relocated probation department and a juvenile hall to be shared with Calaveras County, could open by 2012.

Initial property payments, a required environmental impact report, design, infrastructure and other preliminary work would be covered by the county's criminal justice construction fund. This account, annually fueled by fines and other court-ordered payments, could, over the years, cover the entire property purchase price.

So far, not a dollar of general fund money has been spent on the project.

The county will likely ask state aid and grants to cover construction bills for parts of the many-million dollar project, particularly the jail and juvenile hall. Pedro will elaborate further on construction financing next week.

What's obvious from the depth and breadth of the report to be considered by supervisors Tuesday is that the county administration has been fully engaged in searching for a solution to the criminal justice system's space crisis. Even as Pedro's office handled the politically volatile closure of Tuolumne General Hospital (TGH) with one hand, the other has been busy planning eventual relocation and centralization of law enforcement and court offices.

While the TGH controversy mounted, supervisors in 2004 accepted a Master Space Needs Study that called for moving all law and justice departments out of downtown Sonora. Administrative and financial departments, under the plan, would expand into the vacated Sonora buildings.

Negotiations with the Gardella and Martin families, whose land suited county needs to a T, had started in 2003 and were focused on the actual site by 2005.

Although crucial details of the property purchase contracts were not finalized until the closure of Tuolumne General — and its positive implications for the county's long-range financial health — was a fait accompli, they remained a high priority.

Once the TGH closure was decided, talks entered their final stages. Pedro recalls "a moment of clarity" when he and Jack Gardella agreed to a set of purchase terms the county administrator had jotted down on a napkin.

Much lies ahead for the law and justice center. A myriad of important decisions and many years may pass before this goal becomes reality, but County Administrator Pedro, Sheriff Jim Mele and all other administrators and department heads involved in laying groundwork for this important project should be commended. Maybe.

There are certainly advantages to combining penal services in one area, but the board should also be cognizant of what that relocation means to the vitality of downtown Sonora businesses and the economy. Over time, most of those who have located downtown because they have business relationships with the courts and other legal support services will move closer to the justice center.

This does not bode well for downtown Sonora.

Although some may blanch when the final cost estimates are made public, there is really nothing more important before our leaders. With both our population and crime rate on the rise, giving law enforcement and the courts the tools to effectively deal with violators is crucial.

That our collective safety and security is at stake was not lost on Pedro, who on the first page of his briefing to the board, quoted George Washington.

"The administration of justice is the firmest pillar of government," our first president said.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Geoff White; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.

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