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Space Planning Tips for Problem-Solving Courts

by Kurt Schlauch / June 16, 2023

Over the past few decades, problem-solving courts (specialty and treatment courts) have become increasingly popular nationwide. According to a paper by the Conference of State Court Administrators, the first problem-solving court was established in 1989.

There are now over 4,000 such courts. As a courthouse planner, what once was a bit of a novelty is now part of nearly every courthouse project I work on. Below are a few tips I’ve picked up on recent projects that may be helpful to courts and design teams. 

As the National Institute of Justice explains, problem-solving courts differ from traditional courts in focusing on one type of offense or individual accused of committing a crime.  These courts typically involve a collaborative approach to case management that includes the judge, prosecutor, defense counsel, probation/parole officer, and one or more counselors or treatment providers. 

The objective is to provide an alternative to incarceration that efficiently reintegrates the offender into the community. By addressing and correcting the root cause of the illegal behavior, for example, drug addiction or mental health, problem-solving courts strive to reduce the financial and human costs to society resulting from repeat offenses and lengthy prison sentences. The offender benefits by returning to their family and resuming a productive role in the community.

Adjustments to the Traditional Courtroom

One of the most noticeable changes associated with problem-solving courts within a courthouse involves the space in which proceedings are held. Traditional courtrooms are designed to accommodate adversarial proceedings. The defendant and their counsel sit on one side, and the prosecution team sits on the other. The judge is elevated above the litigants on a raised bench that leaves no doubt in whose hands the defendant’s fate may ultimately rest.

By contrast, spaces designed explicitly for problem-solving courts may have a different look and feel.  Here are a few examples:

  • The bench should ideally be at a lower height to emphasize the non-adversarial tone of the proceedings. It may even have multiple seats to signify that the judge is part of the team rather than a sole authority. 

  • The well area may need to be larger or differently proportioned to accommodate a variety of treatment team representatives. 

  • A large spectator area may be needed to accommodate other defendants awaiting their hearings, which allows them to observe the proceedings of others in similar circumstances.

  • Some standard trial courtroom elements, such as a witness stand, jury box, and adjoining holding cell, may not be required.

Spaces to Support the Mission

Beyond the courtroom, several other spaces may benefit from a perspective shift if the courthouse hosts problem-solving or treatment court dockets. Here are a few points to consider in the planning and design phases.

  • Waiting Area – Problem-solving court dockets can be high-volume, similar to traffic dockets. Even with a larger spectator seating area, additional waiting areas may be needed within the courthouse for defendants and community treatment providers. 

One effective solution I encountered is a relatively large open area near the courtroom with seating where defendants and treatment team members can meet briefly before the official proceedings. I have also seen an “extra” courtroom used as a waiting area for treatment providers, which I suppose is a manageable solution. However, if the court becomes busy, it essentially takes that courtroom offline when it could be used more productively.

  • Reception Area - In one recent courthouse project, I helped program space for a drug court in the same building as the judges and courtrooms. The character of the drug court space felt more like a service/treatment provider and less like a courthouse or even a probation office.  

As such, a comfortable reception area gave clients a sense that they were entering a professional office rather than a punitive or correctional situation.  There were workstations and kiosks for clients to complete administrative tasks and professional resources available to read.

  • Computer Lab - Although the reception area workstations are helpful for small tasks associated with the appointment, some service provider areas also provide complete computer labs. As part of the treatment program, clients may be instructed to participate in online training or be allowed to conduct job search activities. Providing an on-site computer lab will enable them to work on-site with staff or counselors and is also an essential resource for clients who may lack appropriate technology at home.
  • Interview Rooms – A dedicated interview space for staff, counselors, and providers to meet with clients is essential.  Ideally, these interviews should not be conducted in private offices that may contain personal items, family photos, etc. 

Although everyone involved in each case hopes for the best, they must also plan for the worst. From a space perspective, this means interview rooms are accessed from two points - a public side (for the client) and a restricted side (for the officer/counselor/provider).  A duress alarm should be available, and plans to handle a disturbance should be in place with local law enforcement.

Group Meeting Rooms - Two organizations indicated a need for group meeting rooms on a recent project. Group counseling sessions involving about 15-20 clients at a time are an integral part of the programs. Courtrooms and staff conference rooms must be better suited to this function for various reasons.

To address the need for these spaces, design teams could consider them within the context of other multipurpose/meeting rooms and provide flexible spaces with moveable partitions. Another option is having staff/counselors from multiple treatment programs share the same group meeting rooms.

  • Specialized Spaces - Depending on the court and treatment program, space to support specialized functions may be required. For example, drug treatment programs may require dedicated restrooms to collect specimens for testing and potentially an on-site lab for quick processing. Programs involving electronic monitoring as a condition of release may need storage for ankle bracelets and associated monitoring equipment and technology.

Final Thoughts

These are just a few items on what is sure to be a growing list of space planning considerations for problem-solving and specialty courts. As the lines between traditional, adversarial court proceedings and rehabilitative treatment court programs continue to blur, spaces within courthouses will continue to change. 

Judges, court managers, and architects can benefit from including an experienced courthouse planner in your design team. Understanding current trends and best practices helps facilitate meaningful dialogue with building tenants during the pre-design phase.  Reviewing alternatives early in the process, the design team determines which solutions will work best for each court unit and ensures that the design and subsequent phases will proceed smoothly.


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Tags: Courthouse Planning

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Kurt Schlauch

Kurt Schlauch

Kurt is a lead consultant and project manager with Fentress. He specializes in applying quantitative models to assess facilities and support organizational resource decisions. His personal interests include playing and coaching sports, skiing, and traveling with his wife and two children.