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Hall County Sheriffs Office introduces jail courtroom
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An inmate talks with Hall County Assistant Solicitor John Batchelor soon after the dedication of a new State Court courtroom at the Hall County Jail. Other inmates wait nearby to tell solicitors whether they want to take a plea or have a jury trial. - photo by NAT GURLEY

Law enforcement and court officials are touting a new court that Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch said will help close more cases, enhance public access to hearings and save money by reducing inmate transports.

“I worked with the judges on how to improve the efficiency of our court system, and hopefully improve a little bit of security and things of that nature with that,” Couch said Thursday at a ceremonial ribbon cutting.

Solicitor General Stephanie Woodard, who is in charge of state court prosecutions, said the court will be able to accommodate any type of hearing short of a full jury trial. Prior to the jail court space, a hearing required coordination and availability across places and personnel.

“What this does is alleviate the need to have a courtroom at the courthouse, where we’re already short for courtrooms there,” Woodard said. “We don’t have to wait for jail transport. We just need a judge to be available.”

Judges will hold probation revocations, unrepresented jail pleas, represented jail pleas and other brief hearings on misdemeanor charges in the county.

The extra space is in keeping with a nonmandatory but recommended fix from the Judicial Qualification Commission, which said all types of court require open access.

“Jurisdictions are just having to adapt as quickly as they can,” Woodard said. “Some people are doing it only through camera. The intention is that courtrooms not be closed, and this opens the courtroom in every sense of that word — people can be physically present and not just through telepresence.”

Magistrate Court will still use the closed-circuit televised system for first appearances at the pod in the farther reaches of the jail. Sheriff’s deputies said the room is now considered a multipurpose area, and may host GED classes in the future.

State Court has been handling legal matters at the jail for 2« years, Woodard said, facing the height of county furloughs and a high inmate population largely driven by the 287(g) immigration detention program.

“It became apparent to the judges that it was cheaper for Mohammed to come to the mountain than to move the mountain,” Woodard said.

But the hearing room’s size and location frustrated open access and efficiency, requiring escorted passage through multiple secured entrances.

“We were in a day room in the bowels of jail — and I do mean the bowels,” she said with a laugh.

Beyond that, Woodard said, hearings at the jail lacked the formality and atmosphere that usually come with a courtroom.

“Sheriff Couch is a longtime investigator. He testified in criminal matters in court and personally has a great respect for the solemnity and procedures of court,” Woodard said. “It didn’t look like a courtroom, so it didn’t have that sobering effect. He wanted the formality of court and solemnity and respectfulness that everyone should have in that to be present.”

Couch agreed the space is more appropriate for its function.

“It’s a more suitable environment,” he said, adding, “This is a courtroom.”

The court is accessible through a hall connected to an exterior door at the jail, allowing for an easy public access route similar to the Hall County Courthouse.

“Just like at the courthouse, visitors will come through that door, where they’ll be met by a deputy with a scanner,” Couch said.

The office used in-house furniture construction and inmate labor to keep the renovation cost to a price tag of about $10,000, he said. The funds came out of the jail’s budget.

Joey Cain, an equipment specialist for the office, hand-crafted the benches.

“I did all the woodwork you see in here,” he said. “This was previously a gym, so we moved all that equipment out of here.”

Judges are already getting acquainted with their new digs. Judge B.E. Roberts said he made use of the near-completed judges’ chambers last Friday when he oversaw hearings, which served as a sort of test run.

Soon after the ribbon cutting, 15 inmates were escorted to discuss pleas with prosecutors. Roberts will oversee those plea entries this morning at the jail.