Los Banos Courthouse to Double Existing Capacity

LOS BANOS, Calif. — Construction crews broke ground on the new Los Banos Courthouse on June 25. The project will replace the existing courthouse with a modern, secure and functionally appropriate facility as well as expand court services in western Merced County.

The existing Los Banos Courthouse — a county-owned, shared-use building — was constructed in 1980. Today, court spaces occupy roughly one-third of the facility’s 15,000 square feet, with a single courtroom and associated space for court operations that is overcrowded, functionally deficient and significantly lacking in security features, according to the California Courts official website.

The Los Banos Courthouse is a high-volume facility, particularly for traffic, misdemeanor and felony arraignments; however, there are no jury trials due to space and security issues. An average of more than 300 people use the facility daily, passing through one very congested entrance, and security is substandard. Presently, the courthouse lacks central holding and holding cells adjacent to the courtrooms, and in-custody detainees are transported through public corridors, which poses potential security risks. Additionally, the building has significant seismic, physical, functional, ADA-accessibility and efficiency problems that hinder its ability to provide adequate access to justice to West Merced County residents, according to the California Courts website.

In contrast, the new 29,000-square-foot structure — which will sit on a 4.6-acre site — will offer space for a jury assembly room and family law proceedings, including mediation and self-help services. It will also provide one additional courtroom to accommodate a planned new judgeship. Together, these two courtrooms will be able to handle all case types, including criminal, civil, family, traffic, small claims, juvenile and probate proceedings.

Meanwhile, improved security features will include separate hallways for the public, court staff and those in custody, while adequately sized and separate holding areas, a secure sallyport and an appropriately sized security screening area will further increase safety. The new building will also eliminate problems related to aging and inadequate HVAC, mechanical, plumbing and electrical systems.

As so much work would have been necessary to bring the facility up to modern standards, the Judicial Council evaluated renovation as an option but found that it would not be feasible. In addition, the state cannot — in the majority of cases —renovate a building it does not own.

The project team includes architecture and engineering firm Williams + Paddon Architects + Planners Inc. of Roseville, Calif., and construction manager at-risk Swinerton Builders of San Francisco. The new courthouse is funded by Senate Bill 1407, enacted in 2008 to provide up to $5 billion in bond funding for new and renovated courthouses using court fees, penalties and assessments rather than taxpayer revenues from the state’s general fund. Construction completion is expected in fall 2016.