Winston-Salem - Forsyth Co. clerk of court Susan Frye has been working with Winston-Salem/Forsyth Co. Schools, a Forsyth district judge and the Winston-Salem City Council to facilitate a proposal to convert the former Hill Magnet (middle) School into a new juvenile courthouse.
Problems with overcrowding and security concerns in the current juvenile court location-the Forsyth County Hall of Justice-are two primary premises behind the plan, which still needs to go before the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners within the next few weeks before it can move forward.
Frye and Forsyth Co. district court judge Denise Hartsfield said the proposal also is part of the court system's efforts to look ahead, in the event House Bill 725-the Young Offenders Rehabilitation Act-passes through the North Carolina legislature. That bill would increase the age limit (from 16 to 18) at which juveniles accused of misdemeanor offenses would be tried and charged as adults. Both opponents and proponents of the bill have expressed concern that the bill would burden an already overcrowded juvenile justice system in the state, because all 16- and 17-year-olds accused of misdemeanors would automatically go through juvenile court. Currently, North Carolina is one of only two states that prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds accused of misdemeanor crimes as adults.
Upon the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners' potential approval of the proposal, Frye estimates the building renovations and total transformation would take about 12 months to complete. Frye conducted a feasibility study last month to assess the costs of the project. She said the study suggested about $5 million would be necessary in order to complete the necessary renovations.
The Forsyth County court system is consulting with school attorneys about who would own the property. To abide by state law, the school system would have to sell the property if the whole building were to be used for non-school purposes. Since Frye said her proposal entails using only half of the school, the school system technically could retain ownership and use the remaining half for school.
Forsyth County district court judge Denise Hartsfield said she has received feedback about the proposal from community members, some of whom have expressed concern about having juvenile court services in that building. But, she affirmed the building is in a good location and would be secure at all times. She said she supports the proposal to move juvenile justice services to a separate courthouse and cited, again, the overcrowding problem in the current facility and a backlog of cases.
Frye and Hartsfield said the new location most likely would be more convenient for parents of accused juvenile offenders to access. However, they speculated attorneys might find the separate location an inconvenience, as they no longer would be able to handle all of their cases from the Forsyth County Hall of Justice.
Structurally, Frye said her proposal would turn the school commons area into an area in which families can gather and juvenile counseling services can be provided. The front hallway would be converted into a sally port for accused offenders to enter the courthouse. Administrative offices would become sheriff's offices and holding cells, which would be separate for males and females. Frye and Hartsfield said the holding cells at the Forsyth County Hall of Justice are very small in size and number.
WFMY News 2 will continue to be on top of the developments with this proposal and House Bill 725 and will provide updates as they become available.