Judges offer take on Centre County court system

Centre County’s four Court of Common Pleas judges gathered Tuesday for an unofficial state-of-the-courts address.

President Judge Thomas King Kistler and Judges Bradley P. Lunsford, Pamela A. Ruest and Jonathan D. Grine fielded questions from local elected officials, business leaders and others during a forum early Tuesday.

The event, part of the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County’s Business Before Hours series, gave the judges the chance to update the community on what they have been working on and the status of the county court.

Kistler said he is often asked whether officials are considering adding another judge and courtroom or restructuring the local court system.

“I think the answer to both of those things right now is no,” Kistler said.

He said there is neither space in the courthouse, nor adequate case load to justify another judge position now, but added that caseloads are projected to expand.

“You see some things that are coming,” Kistler said. “We see some things coming that are going to indicate caseloads will continue to expand.”

For now Kistler said the judges will continue “humming along as a four person court.”

That system that was put to the test last year with the Jerry Sandusky trial, which garnered national media attention, and the trial for three Eastern European defendants charged in a violent crime and robbery spree happening at the same time.

“When we need to, we can bring a pretty organized game,” Kistler said.

Lunsford said, however, the the county would like to have an additional courtroom, partly to help during Central Court, when one courtroom is used by district judges for preliminary hearings.

But what the system really needs, according to Lunsford, is more space for the county’s Probation Department and District Attorney’s Office.

Lunsford said that space could come from the Temple Court Building, located next to the Courthouse Annex, which the county has purchased. Renovations of the building have yet to begin.

“We do need to expand, and that’s just a product of the expansion of the court system and the overall population,” Lunsford said.

Ruest and Grine said the county is eyeing a mental health court, similar to the DUI court program that Lunsford oversees.

When asked about a drug court, Lunsford said the county has studied the issue and found they could not justify the costs, at least for now.

“This community continues to grow,” Lunsford said. “When we see more and more HUD housing and you see folks who own those housing projects advertising in big city newspapers ... you’re going to see more influx of heroin, crack, coke and perhaps meth.

“We’ve been fortunate to not have ... that because of an educated population and perhaps because of geography,” he said. “But as we become more accessible to outside influences that’s going to happen more.”