Kids and Families the Focus of Courthouse Renovations

By Laura L. Sullivan, Public Relations Specialist for the Pinellas County Sherriff's Office

When people think of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO), patrol might be the first thing that springs to mind – deputies in their marked Tahoes keeping your community safe. However, there are two other major components to the PCSO: the jail, and court security. Hopefully you’ll never be in the back of a cruiser or in jail, but almost everyone will eventually pass through one of the courthouses in the county, even if it is just for jury duty. Largest of these courthouses, centrally located on 49th Street, is the Pinellas County Justice Center. The South County Traffic Court has closed, and the North County Traffic Court will soon follow suit, consolidating all traffic cases from citations to DUIs at the Pinellas County Justice Center. Beyond that, visitors will notice some big changes with recently completed renovations designed to make everything safer and more efficient.

“The main entrance was the first to open with the new construction,” Sergeant James Campbell said. “There are three lanes – up from two – as well as a supervisor’s station, which makes everything more efficient for the deputies and for the public visiting the courthouse.” There are a number of safety upgrades too, including improved security cameras.

Mornings can get crowded at the courthouse entrance, with an influx of hundreds reporting for jury duty or for court cases. On the busiest days, Sergeant Campbell said, lines have stretched past the first parking lot. The new entrance is particularly good when it's raining because it fits more people and moves them more quickly. Outside, large overhangs provide additional shelter from the elements. As the people queue up deputies walk along the line, explaining procedures so the line moves along: laptops out, all drinks must be factory sealed. Some of the visitors quickly chug their open water bottles, but fortunately, the renovations include additional bathrooms too.

“Following the Florida Supreme Court’s recommendations to better serve family courts, the Sixth Judicial Circuit put together a plan for the Unified Family Courts to better serve the community,” said Captain Dwayne Somers. That plan includes a brand new Annex Building that houses a family court for the entire county. On a recent Friday at the newly opened Unified Family Court annex the halls were loud with the squeals and laughter of jubilant children and happy families – it was adoption day, and the kids were permanently and legally becoming part of their new lifelong families.

“The Unified Family Courts is made up of four judges, two magistrates, a behavioral evaluations program, and a juvenile arbitration program,” Captain Somers said. “All juvenile delinquency cases are heard in the Unified Family Court, as well as all dependency cases, all adoptions of minors other than stepparent or relative adoptions, all termination of parental rights, and more.”

The design of this new area reflects the needs of the children and families who will be using it. “The unique part about this building is that it is more sensitive to families and juveniles, with family rooms and breakout rooms,” said Sergeant Campbell. The courtrooms are set up so that different parties such as social workers, case managers, or guardians ad litem can better collaborate with the judge. Outside of the courtroom, some seating is arranged in nooks to offer privacy and sense of security for kids who might be nervous about being at the courthouse. There’s a children’s testifying area so kids don’t have to testify in public. A private room accommodates nursing mothers in comfort. There’s even a play area, bright with natural light and full of toys to distract even the fussiest child. Going to court can be intimidating enough for an adult – for a child it can be overwhelming. But this design does everything possible to mitigate the stress for kids and families. “It’s designed to be more friendly for the children, not as scary.”

If you hold a Florida driver’s license or state ID you’ve probably been summoned for jury duty. The renovated jury assembly room helps make that a more pleasant experience as citizens play their part in the machinery of the justice system. The area now seats 450 people, up from 260 before the upgrade, and includes a jury assembly lounge where people can sip coffee and work at their laptops while they wait for their number to be called for service or dismissal.

Another place that most citizens eventually visit for one reason or another, the Clerk of the Court’s office, has also been revamped to increase comfort and efficiency, with a new customer service lobby and a seated waiting area. Until recently there were service windows in the hallways and citizens had to stand in line. The new setup is much more pleasant. In inclement weather, visitors will appreciate the new three-story parking garage for visitors and employees that includes a covered walkway.

Deputies, civilians, and volunteers with the PCSO work together with judges and courthouse staff to keep the wheels of justice turning. From the moment anyone enters the courthouse, whether by the front door or via the tunnel that leads from the jail (see next story) PCSO personnel are making sure that everyone’s courthouse experience is as pleasant and safe as possible.

The Pinellas County Justice Center was designed by Williamson Design Associates.