Juvenile Courts: Rethinking Design and Outcomes
In the last 10 years, a number of research organizations have examined the consequences of juvenile delinquent children being tried in an adversarial, adult environment. These efforts challenge the presumption that children somehow stop being children when they commit crimes. These studies have led to the recent development of problem-solving courts aimed at rehabilitating children. The fundamental objective is to understand the issues that led the child to commit the crime, rather than judging the case purely on the offense itself.
This new or redirected paradigm for juvenile courts has also led to rethinking the design approach to juvenile court facilities. A fundamental difference between the adult and juvenile courthouse is the focus on equipping the judge to make sound and positive decisions to help the child become a law abiding citizen and place them in an environment that considers their well-being. Some of the elements that differentiate a juvenile courthouse from an adult courthouse include co-locating program services, scaling space, children waiting areas, multi-cultural way-finding, and accessible site locations. The following three fundamental elements lay the foundation for programming and designing a juvenile courthouse.
- Co-locate program services: Judges rely heavily on the advice of support staff to offer juvenile offenders specific plans that best address their unique situation. Locating support agencies such as the prosecuting attorney, probation, child advocacy groups, community support resources, and volunteers together provides collaborative opportunity for all entities to examine the child’s case and determine the best course to rehabilitate and monitor the child’s progress. Co-locating these agencies does not necessarily mean developing large scale office suites, but rather beach-head offices flexible enough to work individually or collectively.
- Scaling courtrooms: Designing a courtroom that reflects the scale of a child compared to an adult mitigates the fear factor that one may experience in a courtroom. Further, the judge must speak to the adolescent at a level where their eyes meet rather than having the child strain their neck up to the judge. Unlike the adult courtroom, a judge’s bench may only be one to two steps above the floor. This scale creates the impression that the judge is there to seek ways of helping the adolescent to discuss the seriousness of their crime and to improve their behavior.
- Vision of facility for the community: The design image of a juvenile courthouse requires a delicate and responsive balance between representing a structure that cares about their children and one that reinforces the idea that justice is served here. The exterior design image of the juvenile courthouse should reflect the equilibrium of compassion and seriousness for the courthouse. Color, texture, scale and openness are several design elements that form an appropriate image of the courthouse to the community and the juvenile. The resultant objective is a design that finds ways to keep the child out of harmful environments or criminal activity and get them back into the community as a functioning member of society.
The key to successful juvenile courthouse design is to empower not only the judge, but the numerous support agencies by giving them choices on how best to handle a juvenile. When a court facility can provide the program spaces to allow them to perform their work, they have more capacity to draw energy and ideas from others and be re-energized to find solutions to juvenile problems. Providing a juvenile courthouse that responds to today’s justice reform initiatives fosters innovative practices and partnerships to improve the outcome for youth and their families.