4 Factors Influencing Today’s Criminal Justice Designs

By Michael Lewis

4 Factors Influencing Today’s Criminal Justice Designs

All across the United States, many factors influence how criminal justice facilities, such as courthouses, jails, and prisons, are designed. Here, we outline the four factors that most frequently impact criminal justice facility design, as well as a community’s decision-making process on how to best proceed.

1. Population Increases

According to U.S. Department of Justice data, most states report that current operational capacities exceed the number of inmates their prisons were designed to hold. As the population rises across the United States and in Iowa, this data can be compared to incarceration-rate trends to gauge upcoming criminal-justice needs. In Iowa, for example, incarceration rates typically fall between 1.7% and 2.1% of the total state population.

To handle this continuing increase, the criminal justice market is turning to the idea of restorative justice: a focus on rehabilitating offenders and preparing them to re-enter communities. At all levels, government agencies are analyzing incarcerations to see if there are suitable alternatives. This could impact the number of criminal justice facilities required across the country, and increase the need for other types of rehabilitative facilities.

In Iowa, incarceration rates are trending downward just a bit, toward 1.7%. This is due in part to restorative-justice alternatives. Conducting predictive modeling can help you understand what to expect within your own justice system so you can plan accordingly. 

2. Design Standards

Minimum requirements dictate initial design guidelines for criminal justice facilities. Depending on building type, we adhere to requirements set forth by the:

These guidelines, requirements, and best practices inform certain design decisions:

  • Booking/holding spaces
  • Cell size and furnishings
  • Circulation areas
  • Courtroom size and quantity
  • Exercise-area size and furnishings
  • Lobby, central, and perimeter security
  • Medical and behavioral health spaces
  • Staff spaces
  • Support spaces, such as visitation and food service
  • Toilet and shower access
  • Evidentiary spaces
  • Emergency operations
  • E911 communications

Even though there are design guidelines and requirements to follow, customization and personalization are still important in criminal justice facility design.

For example, the Clinton County Justice Center 911 in Clinton, Iowa is an addition to the existing courthouse, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Similar materials and design elements were used in a way that isn’t confusing or distracting from the existing facility. Modular steel cell technology keeps initial construction costs and long-term maintenance costs minimized.

On the other hand, the Taney County Judicial Center in Forsyth, Missouri, wanted to create a space that could host community festivals and events in addition to serving as a courthouse. Taking the exterior up a notch, it uses a mix of brick, stone, and precast to give the building a strong civic presence and provide an inviting feel that complements nearby buildings.

Both of these buildings meet required and suggested codes and guidelines, but adjustments were made to suit budgets and facility purpose.

3. Longevity

According to National Association of Counties statistics, the average county building was built in 1973. There is ample opportunity in many of these facilities to enhance energy efficiency, productivity, and safety by improving buildings and infrastructure. As public projects, the opportunity to build or redesign a criminal justice facility only comes along so often for most communities; it’s typical to design for a 30- to 50-year building. We need to examine today’s trends and requirements, as well as how these buildings will function in the future.

Not only do criminal justice facilities serve a civic purpose, but they often help form a community’s sense of pride. What statement does the community want to make? Case in point: In a study conducted by psychologist Anne Maass at the University of Padova, courthouse architecture was found to affect estimated likelihood of conviction. In other words, her findings indicate that design features may impact emotional well-being and moods, which influences thought processes. Talk about building design that makes a statement!

4. Operating Costs

Whether they’re being incarcerated or adjudicated, moving and transporting people in and around the justice system is expensive. Anything that can be done design-wise to connect government facilities, such as courts and jails, can reduce necessary movement (and extra work associated with it).

This, in turns, reduces the costs of moving people through the justice system, which decreases operating costs – and translates to less money required from taxpayers.

Courthouses, jails, and prisons across the country continue to age, and these four factors – population increases, design standards, longevity, and operating costs – will be front and center as improvements are made to enhance their energy efficiency, productivity, and safety.

Mike Lewis, AIA, Architect

Mike has specialized in justice design for more than 30 years. He has a keen sense for identifying operational and space planning needs, utilizing evidence-based practice philosophies and achieving strategic and operational objectives.

Mike Lewis, AIA, Architect

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