Lack of space causing security concerns

Chief Judge Michael Newell is leading an effort to secure funding for new family court buildings in Kent and Sussex Counties.

“We have some concerns about security issues,” he said.

Primarily, a lack of space makes the transport of detainees throughout the courthouses unsafe. In addition, the sensitive nature of family court proceedings means close quarters can be dangerous.

The Sussex County Family Court building was constructed in 1988, the Kent County building in 1989.

“Since that time our filings have increased in both counties – more than doubled since they were built,” Newell said. “The courts acquired additional jurisdiction. There have been population changes, most notably the growth in Sussex County.”

His concerns include the unsafe sally ports, or lack thereof, at both buildings. A sally port is like a garage where a vehicle holding a prisoner can be driven into and then locked to help prevent an escape while the prisoner is exiting or entering the vehicle.

“For the transfer of prisoners in Sussex, it’s done outside the building in an alleyway,” Newell said. “In Kent County, the doors in our sally port don’t close and sometimes the vans are too big to get into the garage.”

Delaware Courts Chief of Community Relations Sean O’Sullivan pointed out other concerns.

“People from lock up are walking right by the judges’ offices. There are no private rooms where attorneys and clients can talk, so sometimes they go running off to bathroom,” he said. “There are really tight waiting rooms where you have plaintiffs sitting next to each other, where there could be [protective orders]. Family court proceedings in particular can be really heated … a lot more attention has to be paid to this sort of thing. The facilities are really unsafe and inappropriate in this modern day and age.”

Newell met with the bond bill committee of the General Assembly in April, and since then, a court facilities improvement working group has been formed. The group is tasked with developing a plan to address the issues in Kent and Sussex family courts. Their report is due December 1, 2019.

“We’re in the process of trying to get funding for the buildings through the General Assembly,” Newell said.

Newell estimates the new buildings would cost about $80 million apiece. About $13 million has already been awarded for project design and other preliminary efforts. Ideally, the General Assembly would allot the funds in the 2020 bond bill.

The building sites are already available, with the exception of some property in Dover that must still be acquired by the state.

According to Newell, if funding is obtained, the new Kent County Family Court will be built at South Governors Avenue and West Water Street in Dover. The new Sussex County Family Court will be built at East Market Street and South Race Street in Georgetown.