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Courthouse Planning: What’s Your Next Move?

by Trish Lomonosov / July 6, 2017

If your courthouse space is maxed out, you may find yourself getting pretty creative to repurpose space (think storage closet conversion). Or your operations may be suffering due to the quality of your space. Either way, you may be looking for a sustainable solution but might be overwhelmed by the options, not even knowing where to begin – much like a game of chess. You know you need a strategy but it has not yet crystallized for you. Have you considered undertaking a comprehensive courthouse planning exercise to take a deep dive into analyzing your court’s past and present trends and developing a vision for the future?

Courthouse planning (often referred to as a needs assessment) includes three main elements: an analysis of workload and personnel, an evaluation of your current courthouse, and an execution strategy for projects to improve your space. Together, these elements provide a game plan for improving space, which should, in turn, improve court operations. Let’s focus on these elements one at a time.

Workload Drivers and their Impact on Your Court

In my 13 years as a court planning consultant, I’ve visited dozens of courthouses nationwide, from the Pacific Northwest to the eastern seaboard, and throughout the heartland and the southwest border. During that time, I’ve noticed many common trends that drive workload, regardless of geography. For example, certain drug epidemics have cut across geographic and socioeconomic bounds and have permeated our nation’s communities. Courts are also impacted by trends more unique to their location, including immigration, economic factors that drive crime, and demographics.

I recently visited a court situated on the southwest border. Because of its proximity to Mexico, the jurisdiction handles a large number of illegal immigration cases. The court has developed an approach to border enforcement that targets border crossers believed to be the most likely to commit violent acts. The prosecuting attorney’s office focuses a large portion of its efforts on those who have previously been removed from the U.S. and who have substantial criminal records. However, the court also carries a heavy misdemeanor docket related to illegal immigration offenses, which is resource-intensive and involves frequent in-court appearances. This is unique to border courts and had to be carefully considered when developing the courthouse project plan.

Effective courthouse planning involves analyzing workload drivers and forecasting them into the future. Getting a handle on the projected workload allows planners to forecast the number of judgeships and personnel that may be required to handle the work. Only then can we accurately plan for future courthouse space needs.

As we plan for a court’s projected space needs, we typically produce workload and personnel projections for a 15-year planning horizon (or longer depending on the court). It is important to plan as far into the future as possible due to the well-recognized, albeit unfortunate, reality that the process of funding, designing, and constructing courthouses moves at, well, a snail’s pace.

Analyzing the Trends

We have learned that the most accurate forecasts of future workload, judgeships, and personnel are produced through a blend of rigorous statistical techniques and experience-based input provided by court unit executives. In short, quantitative data doesn’t tell the entire story. Forecasts must often be tempered based on realistic assumptions provided by court executives who are knowledgeable about court operations. These experts include judges, clerk’s office staff, prosecuting attorneys, public defenders, probation and parole officers, and courthouse security representatives.

In a midwestern court district I visited, the historical trend showed a pattern of moderate growth in criminal cases over the past decade. However, the court noted a shift in prosecuting patterns that was resulting in a higher number of complex white-collar crime cases and drug trafficking cases that targeted the upper tiers of trafficking organizations. These types of cases often involve multiple defendants and become a tremendous resource drain for the court. It’s important to consider such complexities to gain an accurate picture of the court’s changing trends.

Courthouse planning that doesn’t combine statistics with qualitative input often results in a plan that does not adequately meet the needs of the court, particularly over the long term.

With budgets being as tight as they are and with courthouse plans receiving a great deal of scrutiny from legislative bodies, it is absolutely critical for courthouse plans to be realistic in their scope. Of course, there are always unforeseen variables, such as how future technologies will impact court workload or changes in leadership that affect prosecutorial priorities. But that’s a topic for another blog.

Analyzing workload and personnel trends provides a rare opportunity for court managers to pull together past, current, and projected data into one place, allowing for a thoughtful look into the potential future of the court. Developing assumptions with the planning team helps set a common vision and mobilizes the court units in a unified direction.

Setting a Vision for Your Court’s Future

I’ve heard court unit executives from numerous jurisdictions say that the planning sessions provide a rare opportunity for all court unit executives to sit around a conference table and share information with each other - perhaps for the first time. Court managers are busy running day-to-day operations and rarely have the time to come together as a team to take a broader look and understand the interconnectivity between the court units. The court planning process brings the key players to the table and, in my experience, is often the catalyst for the development of a clear vision about the future of the court. If this were the only benefit of courthouse planning, it would be enough, in my opinion!

Evaluating the Existing Courthouse… Where is Your Court Today?

In courthouse planning, our architects typically assess a building and provide ratings in five key areas:

  • Space standards
  • Space functionality
  • Building condition
  • Security
  • Technology

Rating these factors helps us determine the physical and operational condition of the building. We can then compile a list of building weaknesses and potential opportunities to optimize space. The benefits and deficiencies of court-occupied space are objectively identified and consistently documented for each facility we assess.

Evaluating the existing courthouse as part of the courthouse planning process provides benefits to the court:

  • Determining your courthouse’s greatest existing needs
  • Identifying the strengths and weaknesses to help prioritize projects and to maximize funding for short-term improvements
  • Planning ahead to make sure your courthouse can adequately house operations in the future

Developing Your Court’s Execution Strategy - A Game Plan for the Future

Developing an execution strategy in courthouse planning involves identifying the gap between the existing facility and an ideal courthouse. From there, the planning team develops a list of projects needed to fill the gap. Projects can be planned to meet short-, mid-, and long-term facility needs.

Developing an execution strategy provides a space project plan broken into phases and projects that are prioritized based on need and funding. It also allows your court to plan for smaller, interim projects that can satisfy short-term needs while awaiting funding for larger-scale projects.

If any of these statements apply to you…

  • My courthouse is overcrowded and is suffering from deficiencies that hinder day-to-day operations.
  • I would like to get a handle on data that show where my court is heading in the future.
  • I want to set a vision for my court but don’t know where to start.
  • My courthouse needs so many projects but I don’t know how to figure out which ones will give the biggest bang for the buck.

…it may be wise to engage the services of a courthouse consulting firm to walk you through the process. While no one has a crystal ball, developing a game plan will certainly help point you in the right direction. You may even end up with checkmate.


Tags: Courthouse Planning

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Trish Lomonosov

Trish Lomonosov

Trish is a senior analyst/planning consultant for Fentress. She holds an M.S. in criminal justice and is certified by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP). She is also a certified Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) practitioner. Her personal interests include hiking, kayaking, and spending time with her two daughters.