I have noticed an upward trend in the number of cities and towns attempting to combine their court systems into one courthouse. Courts often do so because they are housed in underperforming facilities or fragmented across several locations. To solve this problem, it seems that the most prudent solution is to combine the court units into one facility. This is often referred to as a “consolidated courthouse.”
A consolidated courthouse does not mean the court units combine their jurisdiction; they are simply housed in the same facility. A consolidated courthouse has some advantages. It provides opportunities to share functions like courtrooms, administrative staffing, or IT services. Furthermore, a single, unified court building in a local community is often seen as a prominent and recognizable landmark. However, if you plan to consolidate court operations, several critical things must be evaluated before moving forward.
Maximize the Opportunity
In many instances, the needs of one court unit will drive a consolidated courthouse project. When making changes to a single component in a court system, considering how the changes will impact the whole court system is often helpful.
The Family Court was spread across several buildings in a recent court consolidation project. Not only was the situation a hardship for the public and Family Court staff and judges who needed to cover court in several locations, but it also required substantial staffing resources and equipment from the sheriff’s office at each location.
While consolidating the Family Court was a priority, we also found through our courthouse planning process that the Criminal Court was severely deficient in several areas, particularly secured circulation for prisoners. By recommending a new criminal courthouse annex, we could relocate the Family Court from its multiple locations by backfilling the vacated Criminal Court space in the existing facility. The county saved considerable money by reusing the criminal courtrooms and eliminating the staffed security screening areas required for multiple buildings.
Detainee Movement and Holding
When considering a consolidated courthouse design, serious discussion regarding detainee movement and holding is required early in the planning process. I have seen municipalities decide to move forward with planning a consolidation project only to find later that it would cause significant hardship to law enforcement or the detainee holding requirements would unexpectedly impact the project cost.
For example, if an existing court facility is adjacent to a jail, relocating court operations would most likely require more staffing, equipment, and time to produce an inmate in a new courthouse. It would also require duplicative holding areas in the courthouse instead of utilizing the existing holding areas in the jail.
Additionally, if the Juvenile Court is to be housed in a consolidated courthouse, sight and sound separation requirements must be considered when designing the central cellblock, increasing the space needed in the courthouse.
In a recent project, the city initially determined that a consolidated courthouse would house the Circuit, District, and Juvenile Courts. Soon after our team became engaged in the project, it was clear that relocating the Juvenile Court from its current location would be difficult.
The Juvenile Court is connected to the Juvenile Detention Center, and consolidation would hurt juvenile court operations – specifically, the sheriff’s ability to produce detained juveniles for a court proceeding on time. Clearly, the consolidated courthouse project should not include the Juvenile Court, and their space needs should be improved at the existing location.
Considering detainee movement and holding requirements is key when planning a consolidated courthouse.
Site Selection Criteria
The facility could be quite large, depending on how many court components are to be consolidated. If the central business district is the preferred location, finding an appropriately sized site is often difficult. One that can accommodate perimeter security measures, preferably by applying CPTED concepts (landscaping, setbacks, etc.), is ideal when considering the site.
While providing on-site parking for all staff is not typically a requirement for new courthouses – particularly in an urban environment – the site should be proximate to public parking and accommodate a restricted parking area for judges and some visitor parking. Access to public transportation and pedestrian pathways and the availability of service amenities such as restaurants, retail, and police and fire departments are also important to consider when considering the consolidated courthouse site.
The needs of court-related agencies such as the Prosecutor’s Office, Probation Office, or Public Defender’s Office must also be considered. Are they close to or contained within one or more of the existing courthouses? Often these entities prefer to be housed in the courthouse; however, they can function effectively if they are at least located nearby.
The decision to include court-related agencies in a consolidated courthouse project often comes down to funding. Depending on how large the court is and how many types of court units are located in the courthouse, a consolidation project can become very large. For this reason, housing the court-related agencies in the courthouse could become cost prohibitive. If these entities are not located in the courthouse, an effective compromise is providing them with some “touchdown” space in the building, such as trial preparation space.
Understand the Impact of Courthouse Consolidation
If you are considering a court consolidation project, the decision may not be as easy as it appears. Because court units are located in different buildings doesn’t automatically mean consolidation is the best alternative. Many factors must be considered when designing and constructing a consolidated courthouse, and relocating the court units may not always benefit court operations.
Make sure to coordinate with all court units and related agencies to understand the effects consolidation will have on each. This will ensure that an informed decision will be made and the most beneficial consolidation plan can be advanced.