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  • 02.01.17

Can A Redesigned Courtroom Make The Justice System More Just?

The bond hearing, where judges decide how much money defendants must put up to get out of jail before their trial, can change (or destroy) lives. A new courtroom aims to make the process more humanizing for everyone involved.

For someone booked in Chicago’s Cook County Jail on a nonviolent crime, life can change in bond court. In a hearing that usually takes less than a minute, a judge decides whether or not the defendant has to post bond, and how much they’ll have to pay for their freedom.

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If a defendant can’t come up with the cash, they’ll stay in jail and can lose their job; some stay in jail for months (or even years) while they wait to go on trial. In one case, a pregnant, homeless woman accused of stealing fruit and candy bars was held in jail for 135 days.

It’s a system that the county is beginning to redesign with pro bono help from consultants around the city. A new algorithm helps court staffers rate detainees’ risk for committing a crime or not showing up for trial; in theory, it helps reduce bias. A growing number of defendants are now let out with electronic tracking devices. The county is considering eliminating cash bonds entirely.

The county is also tackling another issue: the design of the courtroom itself.

“It’s only a 2,000-square-foot room, but you have hundreds of people’s immediate–or unfortunately, longer-term futures–being decided just in that one space,” says Emma Cuciurean-Zapan, a designer at Cannon Design, a firm that donated pro bono services to redesign the bond court. “Interacting are up to nine different state and local agencies in that room, in about 37 seconds.”

The courtroom was originally designed for regular trials, not bond hearings. A giant jury box takes up much of the space, even though there isn’t a jury. The placement of the judge’s bench, at an awkward angle in the corner, makes it hard for family members in the audience to hear what’s happening. A constant stream of people walk through the courtroom, disrupting proceedings. The many parties involved in a hearing aren’t well arranged.

As the designers researched bond courts around the country, most had some similar problems.

“What we found was that most of them were in one way or another just like the one we addressed here in Cook County,” says Tim Swanson, who leads Cannon Design’s Chicago office. “That is, they were a regular courtroom that had just been repurposed to handle the bond process. The reality is this space was not defined or designed for the way it’s being used right now.”

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The new design improves acoustics, gives everyone a clear place to sit–with the defendant lined up directly in front of the judge–provides a place for detainees to compose themselves before they step in front of the room, and minimizes movement as the judge talks to each party and deliberates. After the designers watched an attorney bring up information for the wrong client, they also created a new organization system for files. The design also adds infographics in the hallway outside explaining the process.

In the current room, family members or friends rarely understand how a bond hearing works. Even after researching the process–and without any emotional investment–the designers say that their own first experience in the court was confusing.

“If I were coming to visit a family member, this is probably the first time I’ve been in this building,” says Swanson. “I don’t know where to go. I end up in a corridor packed with people, and may miss the explanation of what goes on . . . when I get in the room, I’m in a room that’s loud and I’m not facing the judge. They’ll bring in a group of people for their less-than-a-minute session. I don’t know what’s going on.”

The long list of stakeholders involved in the process have embraced the new design, which will begin construction. “Everyone agreed on the problem,” says Cuciurean-Zapan. “The overarching themes of dignity and decorum and clear communication–everyone from former detainees we talked to, to the judges, agreed that all of those were apparent.”

Some argued that the new design will make the other courtrooms in the system seem worse. “The concern was, what happens when you go into the other 60 courtrooms across the county once you’ve had this type of experience?” says Swanson. “It’s a bigger question that we wrestle with now, around having some sort of social justice design lab, bringing stakeholders to reimagine the whole system.”

On its own, the new courtroom design won’t solve the problems in the bond system. But the designers think that it’s a needed step.

“It’s more about the what bond court does than what the physical space is,” says Swanson. “What we discovered in the beginning was that the physical space was limiting what the bond court could be and do. And the hope is that by making these changes, it allows them to get their head up for air to think about the other big meaningful changes that can affect the entire process.”

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[All Images: Cannon Design]

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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