Designs On Juvenile Justice

By Sue Akiyama, Jim Beight and Luis Pitarque

A look at the Edmund D. Edelman Children’s Court Courtrooms in Los Angeles

Opening in 1992, the Los Angeles County Edmund D. Edelman Children’s Court is known for being the first courthouse in the nation exclusively dedicated to handling juvenile dependency cases.

Sitting/Former Judge Michael Nash stated in 2016, “that it was friendly and sensitive to the needs of abused and neglected children whose cases are heard in our juvenile dependency courts.” From its inception, the vision for this adolescent-sensitive facility was to provide a comforting and nurturing space to support the challenges of young children and their families who are coping with the stresses of the judicial system. Throughout the facility’s design, elements and features were specially crafted to result in a child-friendly courthouse.

In April 2020, Dewberry, with architecture firm Nacht & Lewis, was awarded a contract to provide full architecture/engineering (A/E) services for two new courtrooms set on the sixth floor of the Edelman’s Children’s Courthouse. The space was originally designed and built-out as offices that could be converted into future courtrooms. The new courtrooms are identical to the footprint of the existing courtrooms within the facility, with some slight modifications to the space for ADA accommodations and compliance. The $5.8-million project was completed in February 2023.

Minimizing the Courtroom’s Adversarial Environment

In the design of the renovated courtrooms, Dewberry continued the goal of focusing on the creation of a comforting, child-friendly environment. To achieve this, the team designed a round concept to minimize the adversarial feeling in the space. Additional seating is provided at the attorney tables to allow for counselors and child advocates to be present with the child, and for these advocates to engage in the proceedings. While the typical judge’s bench is raised 18-21 inches, in this courtroom the judge’s bench is raised only 11 inches from the floor so that the judge does not appear as an intimidating figure to the child.

Including Props to Alleviate Stressors

The design of the courtrooms utilizes props in the way of stuffed bears to further soften the character of the space. A new teddy bear is provided to each child who sits through a proceeding through the Comfort for Court Kids, Inc. program, with the goal of helping them through the confusing and often intimidating experience while at court. Stuffed bears throughout the space are present to create a calming environment.

Considering Children in Additional Spaces and Through the use of Technology

The effort to create a more calming and supportive environment was also the main design focus for the associated spaces outside the courtrooms. Waiting areas in children’s court can often be crowded and tense. The design team addressed this issue by providing several distinct waiting areas within the large public lobby. Each grouping includes a child-size table and chairs with adult seating. The court also provides smaller segregated waiting areas so children and families can wait in a safe space and not have contact with the defendant or the defendant’s party. The private waiting areas are also outfitted with child-scaled furniture and are accessed through a secure corridor. Technology was also utilized to provide a means for children to participate in proceedings remotely. This allows them to testify in an isolated space and talk freely without feeling the intimidation of the defendant in the same space. Children may also be interviewed by the judge in chambers, with the testimony being displayed in the courtroom on a large telescoping monitor, which is hidden when not in use.

Like every space an architect designs, it’s critical to consider the end-user. For children’s courtrooms, design elements are particularly tailored, knowing that thoughtful considerations can have lasting, positive impacts.

Sue Akiyama, AIA, Senior Project Manager with Dewberry, is highly experienced in all phases of the architectural process with over 40 years of experience.  For the past several years, her career has focused on justice projects ranging from the county level to the federal courts. As a valued project manager who excels at understanding and meeting client objectives, Sue has led multiple continuing and master service agreements for government and justice projects ranging from small renovations to complicated, multiple courtroom projects.

Jim Beight, AIA, LEED AP, Senior Principal, Practice Segment Leader with Dewberry, has devoted much of his career to justice architecture and is an industry recognized expert in courts planning and design. He leads the national courts practice for Dewberry and as a result has led the efforts of significant, award-winning court projects throughout the country.

Luis Pitarque, AIA, Senior Project Manager with Dewberry,has over 40 years’ experience in architecture, programming, and project management for institutional, county, and federal facilities nationwide; a thorough understanding of government/agency procedures, deliverables, and documents; development of space allocation standards and design guides; and performance of various architectural and specialty architect services.

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the July/August issue of Correctional News.