Redesigning Courtroom Environments for Positive Outcomes
The structure of our society and its policies and viewpoints are ever evolving. As a culture, we strive to improve the human experience, reduce waste and elevate democracy. Similarly, our justice system needs to keep pace with the challenges that arise in pursuit of these goals. As our awareness of the importance of a physical environment to support our judicial process is elevated, we have to balance that with an expectation of economic efficiency. Central to the mission is the holistic care of the person in need.
The justice paradigm is beginning to shift to solve these problems. Success requires political bipartisanship, reallocation of funding, programs with committed staff, and the right kinds of spaces designed to reinforce the process. Across the country, signs of this shift are emerging in the prison and jail systems. Now the courts system is following suit.
For example, the emerging trend in specialized services and courts for family, juvenile delinquency, mental health, drug and veteran services requires new dialogue and design in programmatic functions. The architectural response creates new flexible spaces that directly address and respect the human experience of those who enter the courtroom.
So how can we design to augment this human transaction? We are designing environments to serve people who are there for a very specific business interaction. The environment can enable our citizens to have a more positive and improved experience. A respect and understanding of the individuals who will inhabit the space should alter what the spatial construct could be.
I remember a courthouse tour that exemplified this very idea where alternative courtrooms and proceedings focused on improving outcomes by simply altering perceptions for a more personal interaction for all parties involved.
For example, in a drug courtroom, traditional proceedings would position the judge elevated above a defendant, standing at floor level. With a few modifications, the court proceedings can focus on humanizing the interactions. In this example, the traditional courtroom didn’t have the physical flexibility to alter the “court theater.” However, the judge chose to stand on the floor of the well, face-to-face with the defendant for a respectful and less threatening interaction. And the walls of the courtroom became a creative display to show case memorabilia of individual success stories of those who completed the program. The judge played a role much like a proud parent, thoughtfully disciplining, encouraging and providing a plan for successful behavior. This change offered a more positive response from those involved and has improved the rate of successful completion of programs and reduced recidivism in the system.
In another example, the family courtroom environment may benefit from increasing the size or number of lecterns so that multiple parties represented have an equally weighted position to address the court within the courtroom well. These subtle changes to millwork and spatial adjustments to the courtroom well improve the quality of human interaction within the proceeding and reduce anxiety to the participants, while improving the efficiency of the proceedings.
These are healthy, positive examples of the new American court proceeding in specialized courts. But what should the courtroom look like? It may not be a one size fits all approach. Court designers are addressing the issue in order to elevate the human justice experience. The outcome facilitates the expedience of due process along with a focus on improving human response both during the proceedings and beyond.