If Chief Judge Richard Schoenstedt is administering the oath to prospective jurors, he starts off with an apology.
“This is a terrible, terrible building. We need you and we treat you like dirt. Every surrounding county has better facilities,” he tells the 120 people, whom could spend most of the week sitting in a room crowded with plastic chairs, but no tables. There is one unisex bathroom nearby for all of them to use.
An estimated 2,500 to 3,000 people walk through the doors of the Will County Courthouse every day, according to Schoenstedt. That figure doesn’t include the judges, lawyers, clerks, bailiffs and sheriff’s deputies who work there.
The county’s population was 175,000 when the current courthouse opened in 1969. Will County’s population is nearly four times that now, with 682,518 residents as of 2012. Based on those census results, the county should have 38 judges, according to the state Supreme Court.
“But we have no courtrooms to put them in, so we’ve only got 35 after adding one in 2012 and one in 2013,” Schoenstedt said.
The county has some funding in place for a new building already, but with an expected cost of at least $140 million, much more will have to be raised. Schoenstedt has suggested “user fees” which state Rep. Larry Walsh has proposed become law with an amendment to House Bill 5889.
The county recently hired Wight & Company to design and plan a new courthouse.
During the next six to nine months the county will determine current and future expansion needs while taking disability access, state courtroom regulations and other legal requirements into account, Schoenstedt said.
Wight & Company also will study if building a campus site on undeveloped “green space” or revitalizing the closed Illinois Youth Center or Joliet Correctional Center would be more cost-effective than keeping the courthouse in a location downtown.
But Schoenstedt and Winfrey believe the proximity to the jail, state’s attorney and other offices make staying downtown a better choice. The county is expected to finalize purchase of the entire block west of the courthouse from First Midwest Bank this summer.
“The City of Joliet has told us keeping the courthouse downtown is a priority and they will definitely be working with us to support that however they can,” Winfrey said.