New courthouse just another brick in prison-industrial complex
Steve Schell
March 2001

It's been more than a year and a half since 8th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Robert Cates ordered Alachua County officials to resolve "space and security" concerns at the Alachua County Courthouse. Since that order was handed down, various proposals for a site and design have been tossed about, with a new building proposed for a South Main Street location emerging as the preferred solution. The big question has always been how to pay for it.

Alachua County officials are certain that they have the answer: A one-cent increase in the sales tax, to be collected, at least in theory, for a period of only one year. They've gone on a public relations campaign to convince voters that the sales tax is THE only way to go. "One cent, One year, One Courthouse" signs have popped up all over town. The alternative to the sales tax, according to county officials, would be bonds, and in order to pay for those, property taxes would have to rise (gasp!).

A lot of residents are not convinced that a sales tax increase is the no-brainer that County and City officials are making it out to be. Sales tax critics call the tax regressive, saying that it will disproportionately affect those who can least afford it. They point to the ridiculous cap at $5,000--the amount at which the tax is phased out. Such a cap means that the buyer of a $5,000 car would pay the same amount of extra tax as the buyer of a $50,000 car.

But the funny thing about the on-going debate on how to pay for the new courthouse is that almost everyone who is taking a side on the issue seems to agree that a new courthouse is actually NEEDED. The Gainesville Sun, in a recent editorial, said "because of cramped quarters and shared hallways, elevators and waiting rooms, victims and victimizers, witnesses and defendants, children and adult offenders are often brought into very close, and very dangerous, contact indeed." So we need a new facility.

The question we should be asking, however, is WHY we need a new courthouse. Oh, sure, Judge Cates and all that. But the larger issue is that there are too many things that are against the law in the first place. People are in court for posting fliers on utility poles, for exercising their right to free speech on a university campus, for possession of some minute quantity of marijuana, for selling a ticket to a football game for more than they paid. In our quest to incarcerate as many people as we possibly can, we flood the courts with unnecessary caseloads. Yet crime rates are not plummeting.

The new building will house 11 courtrooms. Eleven courtrooms. And the plan is, at least for the time being, that civil cases will remain at the existing building while criminal cases move to the new courthouse. Eleven courtrooms for criminal cases. This is because we prefer to spend millions of dollars on prosecution and incarceration rather than on prevention and education.

We always seem to find the money when there is a crisis. Hurricanes, floods, drought. They all bring plenty of funding to help rebuild, relocate, and reestablish people's lives. Why do we not consider the explosion in the number of citizens in jails and prisons a crisis as well? Why do we insist upon spending huge sums of money on the prosecution and warehousing of "criminals" when study upon study has shown that only a fraction of those sums are more effective when spent on prevention? And courthouses are part of the process.

Regardless of whether voters approve the sales tax--and they may well reject it as they have other sales tax proposals in the past--we will probably get a new courthouse. And we'll continue to try to run as many people as we can through the court system and into some portion of the criminal justice system. Until citizens stand up and demand reform, we will continue to build new courthouses and jails. Write or call your elected representatives and tell them you've had enough.

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