Aging Hall of Justice bursting at the seams

An $800 million overhaul of San Francisco’s aging Hall of Justice will most likely take a backseat in The City’s 10-year capital plan, city officials said, prompting worries that there simply will not be enough courtrooms to deal with a growing criminal caseload.

City officials are not only complaining that the facility is seismically hazardous, but that there isn’t enough room to try an increase of criminal cases.

And while an increase in arrests and prosecutions may seem like a step in the right direction for a city concerned with violent crime, it may be all for naught if The City’s aging justice center is too small to accommodate them, Superior Court Presiding Judge David Ballati said.

Compared with February 2007, there are now hundreds more felony and misdemeanor cases both pending and set for trial, Ballati said. In February 2007, there were 421 felony cases scheduled compared to 697 now.

The increase could lead to “big trouble” when a defendant asserts his right to a quick and speedy trial, Ballati said.

At any hearing, a defendant with a pending case can call for a trial within 60 days, and with almost 800 additional felony and misdemeanor cases pending over last year, that could lead to some scheduling nightmares.

The Hall of Justice, constructed in 1958 and expanded in 1979 and 1985, houses the Superior Court, two jails holding about 800 inmates, police headquarters, a police station and the District Attorney’s Office. Renovation plans have been floated since the 1980s.

Department of Public Works Director Edward Reiskin said arecent study puts the building’s capacity at the straining point. But with other city capital projects such as parks and schools given a higher priority, Reiskin said, finding the money for the Hall of Justice overhaul may be tough.

“They just don’t weigh as high on the sexy scale,” Reiskin said. For the time being, Ballati said, he’s tried to bring in judges from the Civic Center Courthouse to deal with the added caseload. Unfortunately, he said, there’s no place for them to preside.

“It’s like going to a hotel and they tell you there are no more rooms,” he said. The Hall of Justice project is scheduled to undergo an environmental impact study before a bond measure goes before the voters. At the earliest, a bond measure would end up on the ballot in 2011. If approved, a new justice headquarters wouldn’t be completed until 2019 at the latest.

bbegin@examiner.com

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