Toms River's Municipal Court is standing-room only.
Officials said overcrowding has become a huge problem at the Municipal Court on Oak Avenue in Toms River. People hoping to plead down traffic tickets wait in long, slow-moving lines just to get into the courtroom, and once there often find themselves standing against the back or side walls as they wait to see the judge.
Those with claims may get some relief soon, however. Township officials have been working on plans for a $2.6 million construction project to expand the courthouse.
Although there are 60 seats inside the court room, a court session will try to facilitate as many as 150 defendants as the court addresses summonses, traffic violations and a variety of criminal charges.
A typical session at the Municipal Court sees anywhere from 75 to 150 people and the current courtroom simply does not have enough room to contain them all, officials said. Court administrator Joanna Flanagan called the amount of people in such a small space "overwhelming" and said the overcrowding is a "safety issue."
On a typical Thursday night, Flanagan said, "the line to speak to the prosecutor is out the door."
Flanagan, who originally went to the mayor's office with the issue of overcrowding, said the township has been "fantastic" in responding to the request for more space.
Township Administrator Paul Shives said plans for the expansion are in "the final design stage" and are moving forward smoothly. The township applied for a CAFRA grant from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection a month ago, and those grants typically take 90 to 100 days to be processed.
Shives said he hopes that the project will be out to bid by October 1 and that construction will begin soon after. The construction should take about nine months to complete.
Shives said the overcrowding was strictly a problem of a lack of space and a shortage of seats and that no staff additions were necessary.
Current plans call for a 1500-square-foot addition that would redesign the courtroom and reception area. The expansion would add 140 seats to a courtroom which currently has only 60.
Court administrator Flanagan said that addressing the overcrowding was so important because it is at the municipal level that most people's interaction with the court system takes place.
The Municipal Court handles traffic violations, citizen complaints and disagreements, citizen against citizen complaints, and officer-issued complaints. The majority of cases are traffic-related and that session takes place on Thursday nights. The court clerk's office is open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and court sessions take place on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday.
The courthouse is part of a municipal justice complex that also includes police headquarters. In addition to the explansion of the court portion, concurrent plans to put an to replace a smaller facility off-site are in the works.