Location, Location, Location: Washington County, CO
AMES, IA – JULY 2, 2018
As I approached what Google Maps told me was the location of the Washington County courthouse in Akron, Colorado (population: about 1700), I passed a sign that read, “NOTICE: CORRECTIONAL FACILITY DO NOT STOP FOR HITCHHIKERS.” I began to get worried. but my app assured me that I should turn left into the parking lot directly adjacent to that sign. The reason for my concern soon became clear. The American love for one-stop shopping is alive and well in Washington County, Colorado: the courthouse, county jail (which also houses state prisoners), and sheriff’s office are all in the same building.
This location for the courthouse brought to mind one immediate advantage: convenience for incarcerated defendants awaiting trial. In both Oregon and Utah, judges and attorneys often asked the question, “Is transport here yet?” – that is, have the sheriff’s deputies transporting defendants from the jail to court brought them over yet? Even when the jail was only blocks away, such as in Washington County, Oregon, this transport could still run behind schedule, causing delays – an issue the Colorado set-up obviates.
Then a nagging doubt set in: what message does it send to those coming to court to have it located alongside the jail and sheriff, all connected? Might it send the message that the judiciary is not a neutral arbiter and co-equal branch of government, but rather just another step in a process that leads from arrest to incarceration, sheriff to court to prison? Connecting these facilities could send the message that the judiciary is not an opportunity for a defendant to ‘have their day in court,’ but rather a functionary stop on a path that inevitably ends in conviction and punishment.
Where do other Washington Counties place their courts? In Washington County, Oregon, the courthouse is in the downtown of Hillboro, the county seat. It is part of a larger county government complex that adjoins the older courthouse and occupies the surrounding blocks. The front of the courthouse is a public park, with five large sequoias and sits directly across from a public civic center plaza. The jail and sheriff’s office are nearby, a few blocks away, though not next to or visible from the courthouse. This location in a public park, near a town square, sets up the court as a public space. While the courthouse still has security, of course, it is connected to a fundamentally open space, a public park, rather than a closed and secure space like a prison. The building’s location near the historic sequoias makes the court seem like a civic monument itself, an important historical and cultural marker.
In Utah, the Washington County Justice Court is part of a larger county office building, with the assessor and clerk, amongst others. This colocation makes a lot of sense – from my courtroom observations, defendants seemed to view the misdemeanors and traffic offenses heard in this court as fairly transactional, just another government fee to pay. Putting the court in a nondescript office building mimics this exact tone. The district court is a stand-alone, rather modern and majestic building, near the historic tabernacle and the school district’s offices. It gives the impression of being a shrine almost, a modern monument to the justice system; certainly a different look from Colorado’s low-rise, white prison structure.
The locations of courthouses might seem a utilitarian matter of convenience – what’s easiest to access, for defendants, lawyers, and other parties? But these locations can send a message about how we view our courts. Are they just another administrative government office, and therefore should they look and feel like one? Are they a public civic space, like a park? Are they a cousin of law enforcement and corrections, just a de rigueur waypoint between arrest and imprisonment? As real estate agents love to say, it’s all about location, location, location.