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    Lobby of the Travis County Civil and Family Courthouse. AAJ Conference participants toured the new courthouse, slated to open in February. The ribbon cutting and dedication ceremony took place on December 2, 2022. - photo by April Pottorff, FAIA

After two years of meeting virtually, the AIA Academy of Architecture for Justice (AAJ) held its 2022 fall conference in Austin on October 9–12. The event brought planners and designers from across the country together to share ideas and discuss a wide range of influences and issues that directly impact the justice system. We members of the AAJ community often find ourselves at odds with our professional peers, colleagues, and activists who see us as facilitators of a broken system and question why we commit our careers to working in the justice arena.

What AAJ members actually do is advocate for a restorative, healthy, safe, and dignified system — a position the academy embraced close to two decades ago. The justice system does not exist in a silo; it’s connected to every fiber of the communities it serves: education systems, transportation, policies, community attitudes, health care, mental health resources, housing insecurity, to name a few.

Each year, thought leaders come together at the conference to elevate the discussion and share ideas, seeking ways to continue improving the system, to create better outcomes for justice-involved individuals, and to strengthen community support and services for individuals re-entering communities. The 2022 AAJ conference offered fertile ground for exploration and discourse around:

  • improving our K-12 education systems by mitigating risk factors and overcoming inequities within our working-class and BIPOC communities;
  • seeking effective ways to treat justice-involved youth and young adults based on the science of adolescent brain development;
  • addressing challenges around access to care, jobs, and housing insecurity that former justice-involved individuals encounter; and,
  • focusing on wellness initiatives for the recruitment, retention, and training of public safety personnel.

Featured speakers included Hon. Brandy Mueller, presiding judge of the Travis County Court at Law No. 6; Roy Charles Brooks, commissioner for Tarrant County Precinct 1; Hon. Lora Livingston, presiding judge of the Texas 261st District Court; and Joseph Chacon, chief of police for the Austin Police Department.

We rounded out the conference with two facility tours: the new Travis County Civil and Family Courthouse, procured through a progressive public-private delivery method, and the Austin ISD Rosedale School, which offers tailored instruction to children with severe special needs or medically fragile conditions or who are in need of intensive behavioral support.

The AAJ embraces our next generation of leadership (NextGen). We encourage NextGen to step forward, speak up, and get involved. The conference offered a forum for younger leaders to facilitate breakout sessions, lead discussions, and moderate panels that challenged the status quo and encouraged participants to rethink the justice system and building typologies in pursuit of a more just and equitable future. For example, one panel featured community leaders that engage the community and justice-involved individuals to learn from their experiences to create beneficial programs that support re-entry and strengthen family connections. Another illustrated design innovation for human-centered justice facilities.

After the conference concluded, our NextGen leaders shared insights on the lessons they took away from the conference. Among these were the following:

  • Incarceration creates a public health crisis within our families and communities. Studies reveal that family members of incarcerated loved ones experience poorer health and shorter life expectancies.
  • Numerous local support programs and volunteers engage directly with justice-involved individuals and families of the incarcerated. They focus on initiatives to break the prison pipeline, lower recidivism rates, dismantle unjust systems in our society, and create programs that build relationships rather than sever them.
  • As planners, designers, and thought leaders passionate about our resolve for change, our roles extend beyond the drafting board: We must become advocates, share knowledge, and engage in life-long learning.
  • Impactful change happens when those not impacted are as morally outraged as those individuals and groups with lived experience in the justice system.

The conference topics, discussions, and ideas re-energize me and affirm my chosen career focus — my 30-year pursuit to address core issues of our at-risk populations, improve the experiences for the justice-involved and their families, and strengthen our communities.

I served as the AAJ’s national communication chair from 2010 to 2015. In that role, I published five editions of the AAJ Journal per year. In 2014, when kicking off a quarterly feature that profiled the AAJ’s emerging professionals, I wrote an introduction entitled, “PAY IT FORWARD – It’s Our Professional Duty: The Next Generation of Justice Leadership.” When I wrote it, my mentors were approaching the sunset of their careers, and I felt it the duty of my generation to nurture the generation behind us, as did my colleagues on the national AAJ leadership team. In the article, I discussed our obligation to foster the next generation of justice leadership — a group as passionate and stalwart about making meaningful change as I, my peers, and my predecessors were. Well, those emerging professionals I profiled in the journal almost a decade ago are now leading the AAJ and playing a role in building the generation behind them.

The discussions, ideas, and passion that the AAJ NextGen group shared at the conference left an imprint. Our future leaders are finding their voices and preparing themselves to lead AAJ, push ideas forward, and create meaningful change.

April Pottorff, FAIA, is a principal at DLR Group in Austin and leader of the firm’s Justice + Civic studio. She is a nationally recognized expert on justice facility planning and design.

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