Courthouse Flexibility: Change for Efficiency
One of my favorite quotes by Alfred North Whitehead, an English philosopher and mathematician says, “The art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order.” This is a guiding principle for our work with government agencies when adapting the changing needs of our courthouses across the nation.
Courts are facing the need to transform for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is an aging building inventory. Changes address issues for improved accessibility, changing technologies, and unification of court systems between, city, county, state, and federal agencies. In the short term, court officials improvise temporary fixes to accommodate these changes with little or no provision for the physical alteration of space. The solutions can border on comical outcomes at best, if not inefficient or unsafe conditions at worse. For perspective consider this: Buildings designed at the turn of the 19th century considered where to hitch a horse rather than where to run cables for media coverage of high profile cases.
For these reasons, and more, we are seeing an increase in the number of courthouse expansions and renovations nationwide for both historic and more modern facilities. The best approach to many of these projects responds to three primary challenges in operations, technology and security. While there is no simple approach to planning and designing a resilient courthouse, research and experience allows us to suggest a few starting points.
An organization must be free of nostalgia and old-world standards. It must be deeply conscious of strategies that will enhance delivery of justice to the public.
The traditional courthouse typically assigns one courtroom to each judge located adjacent to his chamber. However, co-locating all judges on one floor in a collegial arrangement provides better communication among judicial officers to seek advice and consult on a case. And, it allows the administrator to schedule courtrooms based on caseload assignment to a particular judge. This results in quicker turnover of cases and increases the speed of justice. Though not considered a profit-making entity, the judicial system must be cognizant of ways to provide better service in an era of limited financial resources.
Multi-defendant trials require space for multiple sets of jurors as well as additional counselor tables to accommodate numerous attorneys. Movable spectator rails that separate the public gallery from the litigation provide flexibility to increase the well size. Likewise, the rails can expand further as needed into the well to increase the public gallery for more spectator seating.
A facility must be able to handle all technology that exists in today’s environment, as well as systems still in embryonic states of development. The good news about our ever-changing technology is that systems demand increasingly less space and provide more mobility than ever before. Massive spaces to handle multiple layers of cabling to various stations now use a fraction of the space thanks to fiber optics. In days past, court security officers sat at a single station to monitor various points and positions throughout the courthouse. Today they walk through their checkpoints using tablets from any location, and even track in-custody defendants brought into the courthouse. Yet even with these improved delivery methods, older facilities need space to accommodate servers for wireless technology.
Since 9/11, our world has evolved into a society where we work hard to prevent and detect terrorist acts to protect society. Though the judicial system considered these needs well before 9/11, changes in the means and methods of securing facilities is under constant debate and review, and anticipating aggressive acts in a proactive manner is essential. Some of the areas under scrutiny include the staff entrance. Many jurisdictions are reviewing procedures in the way staff come in to work, redirecting nearly all staff through the front entrance security-screening systems. Others have added screening methods or secured magnetic keys through designated staff entrances. Security staff can activate or deactivate these keys within a matter of minutes.
Some court jurisdictions believe that resiliency and flexibility in our courthouses are only an issue for large volume and larger population centers with budgets that allow them to achieve these plans. But changes are occurring in every judicial venue, from one-courtroom facilities to complexes of more than 50 courtrooms.
Forethought toward flexibility goes a long way in preparing a court system to handle future changes in an orderly manner. These changes present an opportunity to enhance services to the public, and purposeful planning will continue to help communities preserve order amid change while preserving change amid order.