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Cramped Quarters Rank Among Worst in County : Justice Overflows in Torrance Courthouse

September 08, 1985|TIM WATERS | Times Staff Writer

TORRANCE — Each Monday morning, 80 or more jurors descend into the courthouse basement here and enter one of two rooms. Minutes later, Addy Michaels flips on a microphone in one of the rooms and calls roll--a difficult task, given the fact that a wall separates the two groups of jurors.

"I tell those in the next room to get over by the wall," said Michaels, who has supervised jury operations at the courthouse for 15 months. "Then I tell them to bang on it when they hear their name called."

Michaels uses the unorthodox procedure because there isn't a big enough room available at the courthouse for all jurors to assemble. There hasn't been since the former jury room on the third floor was converted into a courtroom 10 years ago.

"The Torrance courthouse is the pits," Michaels said.

Cramped Conditions

Michaels isn't the only one complaining about cramped conditions at the courthouse.

Judges, public defenders, clerks and other court personnel say that as their workload has grown over the years, the 18-year-old building on Maple Avenue has simply run out of room.

"It's just a crappy situation," said Superior Court Judge George R. Perkovich Jr., who has worked in the five-story courthouse since it opened. "All of our business has gone up like hell, but we haven't gotten any more space."

The Torrance courthouse is not unique. Among the 18 courthouses in the county, several, particularly those in Pasadena, West Los Angeles and Santa Monica, have the same problem, officials said.

No Juror Facilities

Smaller courthouses in Huntington Park and Southgate have no juror facilities at all, said Ray Arce, director of juror services for the Los Angeles Superior Court system, which includes the Torrance court. People summoned for jury duty at those courthouses report to the Compton courthouse on their first day to receive instructions. Jurors then telephone daily from home to find out if they are needed.

Nevertheless, Torrance ranks as one of the most overcrowded, according to some county officials. Frank S. Zolin, the county clerk and executive officer of the Los Angeles Superior Court, places Torrance in a tie for first place with the 30-year-old Santa Monica courthouse, where a shortage of space has forced officials to set up three makeshift courtrooms in the parking lot. Bill Kreger, in charge of capital projects for the county's chief administrative office, agreed that the Torrance courthouse is among the most overcrowded in the county.

Kreger said $25,000 has been allocated this year to conduct preliminary architectural studies for a new municipal courthouse in Torrance to be built next to the existing courthouse on 10 acres of county-owned land.

But the new courthouse is not likely to be built until the early 1990s, he said. In an ongoing county construction program that is funded by a surcharge on court fines, Torrance and three other courthouse projects as a group rank last on a list of courthouses to be built, he said.

Money Earmarked

Kreger explained that under provisions of the program, which was made possible under state legislation introduced by state Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys), the first $43 million raised from fines was earmarked for construction of court facilities in the San Fernando Valley. A new courthouse has already been built in San Fernando, and construction is under way on a high-tech, high-rise municipal court in Van Nuys.

Subsequent money from the fines is to be spent according to a list determined by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Besides the two courthouses in the valley, six more courthouses, three of which are already under construction, are scheduled to be built before any expansion occurs in Torrance, Kreger said.

Torrance could get a new courthouse sooner, however, under a plan now being studied by the county. The plan calls for a developer to lease the county-owned land and build a courthouse and an office building for private companies. The idea, which is supported by presiding Judge Benjamin Aranda of the South Bay Municipal Court, could lower the county's cost and speed up construction, Kreger said.

County planners have determined that there is room to construct a courthouse and a 60,000-square-foot office building on the land, but already-high office vacancy rates in the South Bay could pose an obstacle, Kreger said. (According to figures released last month by Grubb & Ellis, a Los Angeles real estate brokerage firm, the office vacancy rate in the area, including Long Beach, is 23.6%, compared to a countywide average of 15%.)

Remains Optimistic

But Kreger said he remains optimistic. "We have the space and the potential market demand," he said.

Personnel at the Torrance courthouse say the sooner a new building is constructed, the better. Many say that despite the court's growth--the municipal court's filings for felonies, penal code violations and drunken driving arrests increased 33% to 134,000 from 1979 to 1983 alone--they have been given little or no increase in space.

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