June 26, 2015

New Civil and Family Courts Complex a Must-Have for Travis County

The Travis County Commissioners have approved a $291.6 million bond to build a new Civil and Family Courts Complex on county-owned property at 4th and Guadalupe. Voters will be asked to weigh in on the bond in the November election. The tax implication on an average $325,000 home is only $42 per year. That’s about $3.50, or the price of one taco per month. The cost of the project is competitive and comparable to other similar judicial building projects around the country and in the region.

The Travis County Courthouse, currently located at 10th and Guadalupe, was built in 1931 when Travis County was home to a little less than 78,000 people. It originally housed 3 courtrooms. The space has been well used in the ensuing 84 years – utilizing every nook and cranny. It now holds 19 courtrooms, plus space for 336 employees in various county offices. Based on the current county population of approximately 1,160,000, the citizens of Travis County need 24 courtrooms to serve their purposes, and in 2035, the population is projected to be 1,600,000 million. The need for courtrooms will grow to 39. Unfortunately, the current courthouse can’t expand one more inch. The building is simply overwhelmed.

There are many problems with the old courthouse – as one might imagine in any building built during the Hoover administration: lack of technology, fire hazards, rat infestations, lead paint, leaky roof, old plumbing and air conditioning, limited access for the disabled and ADA compliance issues, just to name a few. But of primary concern is the lack of safety and security for women, children and families.

According to Julia Spann, Executive Director of SafePlace,

Most victims of domestic violence are terrified of seeing the persons who abused them when they go to court. They are scared that their abuser will be angry and revengeful that they applied for a protective order, they worry for their own safety as well as for their children. At the courthouse in Travis County, we do not have “safe rooms” where victims can wait separately from the person who has hurt them – there is not room to provide these spaces. At our current courthouse, it is almost inevitable that a victim will come face to face with the abuser in the hallway, the elevator or the courtroom. No wonder so many victims are too afraid to file charges or to go to court!

Victims of domestic violence aren’t the only ones who need a safe and secure place for justice. More children visit the courthouse every day than most people realize. These children may be involved in child custody, adoption, or CPS cases, or they may be with parents who are in the building on other business and don’t have access to childcare. Currently, there are no waiting areas for anyone – and certainly there are no child-friendly waiting rooms. Everyone must wait outside the courtrooms in the hallways.

Children play on the stairs or on the floor. Imagine what it feels like for a child involved in a CPS case who has suffered abuse to share the same hallway waiting area with their abuser. And imagine how it feels for families involved in fierce custody battles or abusive relationships to be together in a very small and cramped space. Family law cases are often the most emotionally charged, stressful, and volatile.

And the children involved are innocent and vulnerable. They deserve to be safe and secure and in an environment that helps relieve their stress, not add to it.

There are also a number of people who are in-custody and are brought from the jail to the courthouse. These people walk with their hands in chains, through the very same hallways in which children are playing and families are waiting. This is a security risk that simply must not continue. The citizens of Travis County deserve better.

The proposed new Civil and Family Courts Complex includes plans for dedicated children’s waiting areas, a supervised child drop-off area, child-friendly rooms where children can give their testimonies, holding areas for those who are in-custody, and safe-rooms for victims of family violence – all necessities for the safety, security, and well-being of Travis County’s children and families.

The 14-story building will contain 520,000 sf and will hold 28 courtrooms, with space to expand to 33 by 2035. It will be sustainable, energy efficient, and aesthetically pleasing. Not only will safety and security be improved for the women, children and families using the courthouse, it will have secured judicial parking and extra security measures in place to prevent possible courthouse violence.

It will be modern and accessible, featuring electronic filings and integrated technology. It will also be fully ADA compliant. In addition to courtrooms, the building will contain a Law Library and Self-Help Center, plus other District and County offices, such as the County and District Clerk’s offices.

The new Courthouse Complex will have a 4-level underground parking garage with 513 spaces for jurors, employees, and visitors to use during the day. The parking garage will be open after hours for public-use to help relieve some of the parking tensions in the central downtown area. It is designed to be “alive after five”. Public use space will be available for groups to rent out after hours. Talks are underway with local arts groups to possibly utilize this space for rehearsals or performances.

The building will be situated on the lot so that it can accommodate the construction of a second office building. This second building can hold retail or office space, and will attract other businesses and support services to the area, further adding to the value of Austin’s downtown economy.

Austin, and the surrounding Travis County, has become a major metropolitan area. For the first time since 1931, the citizens of Travis County have the privilege of creating a lasting, modern, accessible, and secure building where justice can meet the community and serve its needs today, tomorrow, and for years to come.

I support the building of a new Civil and Family Courts Complex because I believe that courthouses should be places where victims and their children feel safe. I hope you will join me and vote yes in the bond election. We can create a safe courthouse in Travis County where victims of family violence can go and feel safe while seeking justice.

-Julia Spann, Executive Director of SafePlace

For more information about the proposed new Civil and Family Courts Complex:

Online: www.newcourtsforfamilies.com
Email: info@newcourtsforfamilies.com
Mail: 600 Congress Ave., Ste 3100, Austin, TX 78701
Twitter: @NewCourtsForFam
Facebook: facebook.com/newcourtsforfamilies