Trauma-Informed Courthouse Design
Although a courthouse is the place where “justice is served,” it is also the place where people experience high levels of stress or emotional upheaval nearly every day. Additionally, many of these same individuals are dealing with a variety of traumatic experiences leading up to their arrival at the courthouse. A courthouse must respond to this unique reality through design solutions that result from an understanding of the human elements of trauma.
Individuals experience trauma in a variety of forms and degrees, and often in unexpected circumstances and environments. These experiences can advance and develop during a person’s lifetime from early childhood through adulthood. They evolve from numerous occurrences and life situations including:
- Witnessing death
- Sexual assault
- War experience
- Mental health disorders
- Domestic violence
- Sex trafficking
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Children exposed to violence
Like any other disease, trauma has a background history that affects an individual’s emotional state of well-being, at times forcing them to cope with unexpected daily symptoms. This occurs psychologically, physiologically and behaviorally in individuals exposed to traumatic events in their lives. While people manage this disease through a variety of coping mechanisms, a number seek relief through maladaptive behavior that leads to social misbehaviors raising the specter of security concerns or court proceeding delays.
Courthouse Environmental Triggers
Courthouses present physical situations that can expose and trigger a person’s traumatic background in numerous ways. The stress of appearing in court is enough to make any individual anxious about what he or she may encounter. Certain physical elements in a courthouse design, or confrontation with a person, can trigger a traumatic episode when an individual recalls a past occurrence in his or her life. Toxins released in the brain can create potential volatility triggered by something as simple as walking into a crowded or dimly lit corridor; seeing offenders that refresh an experience from a horrific incident; or even occupational burnout by judges and staff. For the public, this results not only in potential security-threats but also disrupts court proceedings, and creates a frantic situation requiring immediate security intervention.
Designing a courthouse environment that mitigates or eliminates these behavioral problems provides a less stressful experience for the public and staff suffering from this disease or mental anguish.
How can architectural design mitigate emotional response triggers? Courthouses handle a variety of cases that, given their environmental design, can easily prompt a person’s emotions causing and resulting in these traumatic events. Research has shown that if individuals experience stress, encounters with unthreatening, natural environments may reduce stress and restore balance to that person.
A number of architectural characteristics have proven effective in mitigating stress related to individuals with behavioral issues entering a courthouse. They include:
- Exposure to natural light
- Windows looking out at nature/vegetation
- Earth-tone colors
- Artwork reflecting natural landscapes
- Acoustically dampened environment
- Avoidance of hidden spaces
- Glazed doors to enclosed spaces
- Open interior environment
- Separation of parties
- Wide corridors
- Reduced environmental design complexity
- Separate and secure circulation routes
- Legible wayfinding
- Break out or wellness space for judiciary and staff
Our nation’s courthouses have always imbued the symbolism of justice where steps, columns, and pediments with little transparency send a message that justice is done here. But incongruously, an individual who approaches a building with a fortress-like appearance also prompts an internal mental process of anxiety and fear. Juvenile facilities are one example where design can carry the message to youth that the system is judging one on their offenses, rather than understanding the underlying reasons they enter the justice system.
Most courthouses provide little room for security screening, and minimal lobby space for the public to regroup and relax. Crowded conditions create a sense of chaos and uncertainty that can trigger a person’s emotional reaction. The security screening and lobby areas should provide a balance between order and openness that allow enough natural light and sufficient space for individuals to breathe and gain composure. The layout of the entry process can also reduce anxiety where if a person enters through the front door, they don’t immediately see the security screening stations, but rather the openness of the lobby space. The screening stations located to the side are not in direct line of sight for the entry sequence, allowing individuals to orient themselves before moving through screening.
Beyond the lobby, courthouse public spaces require attention for traumatized individuals. Along with natural light, the public corridor should be straightforward without any hidden pockets of space. The waiting area in front of courtrooms should be comfortable and welcoming in a dignified and private space, rather than queuing in a pocket or niche without natural light. The width of public corridors on courtroom floors should sufficiently allow groups of two people walking in opposite direction to avoid contact. Minimum width should be 12 feet, in addition to the space for public waiting. The objective is to avoid crowded conditions or the potential of an individual emotionally exploding if bumped while walking.
Clearly defined and legible wayfinding eliminates confusion and disorientation for any person. A confusing signage system in a courthouse with numerous courtrooms and agencies fosters apprehension and anxiety, particularly if the person is a victim or witness. Keeping the wayfinding system simple and understandable, particularly for a multi-lingual society, reduces the fear a person faces when walking through a complex facility. An information desk within a lobby enhances and assists an individual who uses a courthouse for the first time. Similar to a wayfinding system, having a human provide directions and answer questions allays concerns or fears for a person struggling with trauma.
Earth-tone colors provide a naturalized environment to allay anxiety that the public may experience when circulating through the facility. For example, natural wood elements in public spaces offer design opportunities to minimize a person’s stress.
Designing staff amenities such as wellness centers, meditation rooms, and outdoor areas offer healthier staff satisfaction for those experiencing vicarious trauma. Planning a wellness center, though thought of a as a luxury item for public facilities, helps people cope with stress they experience in the performance of their jobs.
A trauma-informed courthouse provides one means of creating a safe and healthy environment for individuals traumatized by previous or current experiences—from victims, witnesses, and court staff to citizens making their first appearance in a courthouse. Fundamentally, trauma-informed courthouses become an asset to the justice system and, more importantly, to the surrounding communities they served.
Learn more about DLR Group’s courthouse design practice.