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COURTHOUSE PLANNING & NEEDS ASSESSMENT: A GUIDE TO THE PROCESS

Last Updated: 16th October 2020
Courthouse Planning
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INTRODUCTION

Planning a new courthouse, or a major renovation project for an existing courthouse, is a lengthy and complicated effort that can take many years. A needs assessment is the first phase of such an endeavour. It includes assessing the current and future space needs of the court components and related agencies, evaluating existing facilities, implementing best practices in courthouse design, and identifying potential projects to improve operations. A needs assessment provides the planning team with a valuable set of information to help them select the most viable strategy to meet the court’s current and projected space needs and justify subsequent funding and design decisions.

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 6 KEY STEPS FOR A SUCCESSFUL NEEDS ASSESSMENT

An effective courthouse needs assessment is described in the following six steps:

1. Assemble Court Planning Team and Set Project Goals.  Assemble a court planning team with representatives from all court components and related agencies to provide expertise on workload and resource requirements and to help set goals for the assessment project. 

2. Analyze Workload and Produce Staffing Requirements.  Gather data and anecdotal input from the planning team on past and current workload and staffing, as well as any trends or initiatives likely to impact workload or staffing in the future. Based on this analysis, produce workload and staffing projections for up to 30 years in the future. This analysis helps provide a solid foundation for space programming, design decisions, and funding approvals.

3. Assess Existing Courthouse. Conduct a comprehensive assessment of the existing courthouse to determine the extent to which the facility meets the current needs of the court and related agencies. At Fentress, we utilize our Courthouse Operations Realtime Evaluation (CORE) tool to assess the courthouse and to identify deficiencies. CORE is comprised of an extensive set of objective performance metrics in the areas of: 

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

4. Develop Program of Requirements. Based on the results of the analysis in Step 2 and the assessment in Step 3, develop a Program of Requirements (POR), an itemized listing of the spaces required to meet the needs of the court components and related agencies today and in the future. The POR includes the quantity and size of spaces, along with circulation and adjacency considerations.

5. Identify Potential Improvement Strategies. Identify potential strategies to address both current and future space needs in the courthouse. Improvement strategies could include renovation within the existing courthouse, an addition to the existing courthouse, construction of a new courthouse, or a combination of these solutions.

6. Conduct Gap Analysis to Determine the Most Viable Strategy. Conduct a gap analysis to objectively evaluate the benefit of each of the improvement strategies. A gap analysis:

  • Measures the gap between the existing CORE score and an ideal courthouse score.
  • Scores strategy alternatives to determine which will provide the most improvement in the courthouse when compared to the original CORE score.
  • Produces a cost-benefit analysis to determine which strategy will yield the greatest improvement at the most reasonable cost.
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STEP 1.  ESTABLISH COURT PLANNING TEAM AND SET PROJECT GOALS

At the outset of any court planning project, a planning team comprised of key stakeholders should be assembled. Representatives from all court components and related agencies that occupy space in the courthouse, or that have a direct or indirect stake in the courthouse project, should be included on the planning team. When performing a needs assessment for a criminal court, here is an example of the components that should be included:

  • Judges
  • Clerk’s Office/Court Administrator
  • Courthouse Security
  • Prosecutor
  • Public Defender
  • Probation/Parole/Pretrial
  • Facilities Department
Designated representatives of each of these components form the court planning team.  Additionally, all courts conducting business in the courthouse (e.g., civil court, family court, appeals court) should be included, along with any other court-related agencies.  

The stakeholders’ firsthand knowledge of the court's organization, operations, and workload drivers is key to developing a valid needs assessment. The more engaged the stakeholders are in the process, the more the design will reflect the functional needs of the entire court family. Additionally, this engagement increases stakeholder buy-in and helps limit the number of costly changes needed during the design and construction phases. A collaborative needs assessment with the input of all stakeholders pays for itself many times over.

It's important for the court planning team to meet in the early stages to develop a shared vision for the future of the court. This vision is critical to developing key assumptions that will guide the courthouse planning effort, as well as the future design of any project intended to meet the court's needs. The court planning team should also work collaboratively to establish the project goals. Examples of project goals include increasing security, consolidating groups that are currently fragmented, incorporating modern technology into the courthouse design, or developing a design that is reflective of the local community and culture.

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STEP 2. ANALYZE WORKLOAD AND PRODUCE STAFFING REQUIREMENTS

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The courthouse needs assessment process involves a detailed evaluation of the historical, current, and projected volume of caseload processed through a courthouse, which in turn drives the need for judgeships, personnel, court operations, and space. By discussing workload and staffing trends and developing projections of future staffing and space needs, the court planning team gains a much clearer understanding of the demands placed on the courthouse and the need for additional, or reconfigured, space.

It is critical to consider each of the following factors when performing courthouse demand planning, as each of these may have an impact on court workload. 

  • Geographic data.  Analyze geographic features and related trends that may impact population and caseload in a court 
  • Demographic data. Evaluate historical and projected regional population trends, including an analysis of population among cohorts, to consider what makes a court unique or may drive workload in one or more areas in the future
  • Economic data. Assess historical and projected economic indicators, such as employment growth, unemployment rates, and industries in growth or decline, to determine the potential impact on court filing levels
  • Policies and procedures. Identify potential policy or procedural changes, such as legislative or enforcement priorities and the implementation of technologies, which may influence court workload

The key is to generate realistic assumptions about how the trends may impact current and future court operations and workload. Statistical methods, such as time series analysis, are used to produce projections of future workload, which help determine projected staffing and space requirements. It is important to blend quantitative data and analysis with the qualitative insights gleaned from members of the court planning team. 

The process of planning, funding, designing, and constructing a major courthouse project can take ten years or more. Further, upon occupancy, there should be capacity for the court to grow in the space for an additional five to ten years without having to acquire additional space. For these reasons, workload and staffing forecasts 20 to 30 years into the future are recommended.

One disadvantage of a long-term forecast is that the further out the forecast extends, the less statistically reliable the result. Although the forecasts are a necessary part of the planning process, there is no fail-safe way to predict the many factors that can impact court trends over an extended time period, including:

  • Judges. The political process of having new judges appointed/elected can be lengthy and subject to factors that are impossible to control or predict.
  • Court Component Personnel. Changes to policies and procedures, budgets, technologies, complexity of workload, and staffing formulas can impact personnel levels.
  • Space. Changes to design standards, including new security requirements and additional technologies, can influence a court’s space needs.

Thus, the challenge is to predict reasonable long-term trends. The reasonableness of longer-term forecasts can be evaluated in part by benchmarking the planning results of a particular court against other jurisdictions of similar size and complexity. For example, when planning for a county court, it is helpful to look at other counties regionally that share similar trends. Such trends would include geography, population, economic indicators, workload, the number of judges, and the number of court personnel.

Statistical methods such as cluster analysis can be used to group courts with similar trends. These groups, or “growth models,” can be used to help the court planning team assess how the workload and staffing projections compare to those of similar court jurisdictions.

Plan purposefully
Plan collaboratively
Plan for tomorrow

STEP 3.  ASSESS EXISTING COURTHOUSE

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Concurrent with the workload analysis, an assessment of the existing courthouse and each component’s space should be conducted. At Fentress, we conduct our assessments using our unique Courthouse Operations Realtime Evaluation (CORE) tool, which contains a library of over 500 courthouse performance factors and accompanying metrics. We apply a subset of these factors, as applicable, to each courthouse assessment project.

Utilizing performance metrics helps identify deficiencies within the existing facility. The CORE tool is designed to focus on the following criteria: 
  • Space Functionality. The extent to which the space properly supports operations in terms of adjacencies, layout, accessibility, and circulation
  • Space Standards. The conformance of space to the jurisdiction’s applicable design standards, or to “best practices” in courthouse planning if no design guide standards are available
  • Security.  The security features in the facility, such as secure and restricted circulation patterns, prisoner holding areas, and security screening
  • Building Condition. The general condition of building and tenant space, including the condition of the common areas, lobbies, elevators, stairways, and exterior spaces (e.g., plaza, walkways, parking)
  • Building Systems. The overall condition of the main building systems, and how well they function
  • Technology.  The ability of technology systems  to support court proceedings, public interaction, and coordination between court components
  • Health and Wellness. The amenities of the spaces that promote health and wellness, such as fresh air circulation, daylighting, and cleanliness 

The performance metrics are applied to all spaces (courtrooms, chambers, office spaces, public spaces, and secure spaces) within the courthouse. We typically use between 200 and 300 factors to assess a courthouse. 

The result of the CORE assessment is a score between 0 and 100, with a score of 100 representing an ideal courthouse. These baseline results are very important during the planning and programming process. They can be used to determine the magnitude of the deficiencies, to measure the relative benefits of implementing potential improvement strategies, and to provide an objective measure for prioritizing project phasing and funding.

STEP 4. DEVELOP PROGRAM OF REQUIREMENTS

After validating the workload analysis and assessing the existing courthouse, the next step is to interview each of the stakeholder groups that will be housed in the courthouse to develop a Program of Requirements (POR) to meet projected space needs. 

The POR should detail the current space occupied by each component and the future space needed over the planning period (20 or more years). The POR provides requirements for individual space types, such as courtroom sets, chambers, courthouse security and prisoner holding (if applicable), office space, shared spaces, and other general areas of the courthouse. It also includes a detailed list of spaces within each component, the usable square footage of each space, an overall departmental gross square footage, and any comments or assumptions that support the programming effort. An overall building gross square footage can then be generated by applying industry standard multiplying factors for building support (MEP, building storage, etc.) and circulation factors to the POR.

During the stakeholder interviews, issues that could impact the POR should be discussed. In particular, space-saving methodologies that have proven to be successful in other courthouses should be considered.

Some of the operational changes and space reduction initiatives that the Fentress team has identified through our courthouse planning efforts include:

  • Agile Office Layout. Using an agile, activity-based space layout can accommodate flexible space arrangements and the increased mobility of a modern workforce. An agile space design can reduce space, improve collaboration, and promote productivity.
  • Overall Impact of Technology. Technologies to improve court operations are becoming more widespread and cost-effective, and can reduce staffing requirements.
  • Flexible Courtrooms. Courtrooms that have flexible and movable fixtures can be adapted to accommodate different types of proceedings.
  • Shared Jury Deliberation Rooms. Shared jury deliberation rooms in a centralized location can provide operational, security, and space-saving benefits. Rarely are all jury deliberation rooms needed in a courthouse at one time.
  • Reduction of Library Space. Courthouse libraries have been dramatically reducing space over the past decade due to electronic resources. Many courts have opted for smaller reference collections and shared chambers collections that reduce the need for space.
  • Security.  One way to maximize space is by building security into the architecture of the courthouse so that security is integrated into the building design in innovative ways while still enhancing security.
  • Other Operational Practices. The POR interview sessions could also explore other initiatives and best practices related to the use of videoconferencing, public parking, utilization studies, mediation, and alternative court practices (such as drug reentry courts, community corrections, and mental health court).
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STEP 5. IDENTIFY POTENTIAL IMPROVEMENT STRATEGIES

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The information from the workload analysis, CORE tool assessment, and POR is then used to develop potential improvement strategies for presentation to the courthouse planning team. An improvement strategy is a project - or sequence of projects - and operational changes aimed at optimizing the space in the courthouse.  Improvement strategies address as many space needs and functional deficiencies identified by the CORE tool as possible, and accommodate current and future staff as determined by the POR.

Improvement strategies include the following types of projects:

  • Renovation of the existing courthouse to optimize space within the facility
  • Renovation of the existing courthouse plus a reduction in space needed through efforts such as courtroom sharing, collegial chambers, and shared administrative services
  • Renovation of the existing courthouse plus the relocation of non-court related tenants
  • Relocation of court components and related agencies (e.g., parole, prosecutor) to space outside the courthouse
  • Annex to the existing courthouse
  • New courthouse

Project feasibility is an important aspect that needs to be considered. Identifying feasible alternatives for addressing both current and future space and adjacency needs in the courthouse is based on the following criteria and considerations:

  • Observations of existing facility conditions
  • Detailed knowledge of courthouse operational and security requirements
  • Best practices for solving space needs in courthouses
  • Architectural, construction, and building engineering considerations
  • Ability of various alternatives to meet needs at key milestone periods    

As an example of how this process might be applied, consider a courthouse that currently has courtrooms and chambers for four judges but requires two additional courtrooms and chambers in the future. If there is available space in the courthouse to build out the additional facilities for the judges in a manner that would meet space and functionality standards, a renovation alternative could be considered. Should the available space also be needed to accommodate other needs - perhaps an expansion of the clerk’s office and improved secure circulation patterns - constructing an annex on an adjacent property to house the additional judges could be a second alternative to consider. Should the dimensions of the adjacent property be less than ideal for accommodating standard-sized courtrooms and chambers, clerk’s office expansion, and secured circulation, an entirely new courthouse could be a third alternative to study.

This planning process not only applies to the courtrooms and chambers, but to all of the court and related component functions and offices, as well as to security and circulation considerations. Once feasible improvement strategies have been identified, schematic floor plans are created to help visualize how the strategies will meet the identified needs, as shown in the example below:

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STEP 6.  CONDUCT GAP ANALYSIS TO DETERMINE MOST VIABLE STRATEGY

Henderson_Ext1_revised_2The benefit of each potential improvement strategy can be analyzed to determine the alternative that best addresses the needs and deficiencies identified by the POR and CORE tool. Each improvement strategy is scored, and the results are compared to both the building baseline score and the ideal courthouse score (100) to determine the extent to which each improvement strategy "closes the gap" between the existing and ideal state.  This is commonly referred to as a gap analysis.

For example, if a courthouse scores 60 out of 100 using the performance metrics, a renovation project to add a new courtroom could potentially increase the score of the courthouse to 70 points. Perhaps an annex could increase the score to 85 points, while a new courthouse could increase the score to 100 points if designed correctly. The use of performance metrics allows the effectiveness of each improvement strategy to be objectively measured and compared with other alternatives. The figure below displays how a gap analysis is used to quantify the benefit of each improvement strategy.

Rough order of magnitude costs are developed for each improvement strategy, which are then used to perform a cost-effectiveness analysis. The cost-effectiveness analysis determines not only the strategy that yields the greatest benefit, but also the greatest benefit relative to cost.

Another factor that must be considered is how well each strategy’s implementation timing corresponds to the timeline of projected space needs, as well as the risk of having a less than fully functional court before a strategy can be fully implemented. Each improvement strategy's costs (rough order of magnitude), implementation timing, and risks should be discussed with the stakeholders to gather detailed feedback and suggested revisions. After these discussions, the recommendation(s) deemed most viable is identified as the recommended strategy.

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Summary

Taken as a whole, the courthouse planning and programming process detailed above offers a methodical, comprehensive framework for projecting future courthouse demand, establishing existing facility quality and capacity, converting these findings into facility requirements, and developing an implementation plan that becomes the final improvement strategy. This needs assessment process will ensure that a courthouse plan is responsive to the actual needs of the court, and will provide a solid foundation for efficiently moving through the funding, design, and construction phases that follow.

 A thorough needs assessment unifies the court components and related agencies with a common vision and clearly identifies both current and future needs. A credible assessment provides a compelling and reliable justification for the final improvement strategy and can yield great value to the court. It is instrumental in helping the court to effectively communicate its needs and in successfully receiving funding for court projects.

 

 
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