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H. Kay Howard ‘17 (L) and Delia Conache, CannonDesign (R).

H. Kay Howard ‘17 (L) and Delia Conache, CannonDesign (R)

A better justice system? It begins with attention to details.

H. Kay Howard connects courtroom design to the cause of social justice.


11/11/2016 - The stakes are high in Cook County’s Central Bond Court

Central Bond Court judges determine if people who’ve been arrested but not convicted of a crime should be held in jail or be allowed to return to their communities before trial. These judges weigh arrestee’s potential risk of flight and risk to public safety to decide if the arrestee should be released, detained, or pay a cash bond deposit before trial. If the arrestee cannot afford the bond or is sentenced to pre-trial detainment, he or she may face job loss or expulsion from school while in jail. Meanwhile, Cook County taxpayers face a bill of $300 million for the crowded jail.

Over the summer of 2016, Kellogg School MBA candidate H. Kay Howard ‘17 worked on a project to transform the bond court into a fairer and more effective place to conduct bond hearings by physically redesigning it.

The project was spearheaded by Civic Consulting Alliance, a social impact consulting firm in Chicago that works to improve the city across multiple sectors, including the economy, education, healthcare, and public safety. Since the fall of 2014, Civic Consulting has collaborated with a variety of private sector partners and with Cook County’s criminal justice stakeholders – the Cook County Board President, Sheriff, Chief Judge, State's Attorney, Public Defender, Clerk, the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, and the Illinois Sumpreme Court – to improve the bond hearing process at Cook County Central Bond Court and ultimately lower the Cook County Jail population.

The project that Howard participated in came about because the criminal justice stakeholders identified the design of the courtroom itself as a problem. As a physical space, the courtroom did not foster dignity and decorum, and its very design might impact outcomes for detainees.

The early phase of the project involved interviewing the criminal justice stakeholders about how to improve the space. That was a major task, since there were insights from several relevant parties to consider: elected and appointment officials, law enforcement, public defenders, judges and clerks, families of detainees, and more.

“It was a process of talking with each stakeholder to understand where they thought the physical issues were in the court, and to track where they agreed and disagreed,” Howard said. “It took a team effort to understand the problem and find solutions that work well for the people that come together in bond court.”

The team identified several design weaknesses with the space, including unequitable allocation on space, obstructed sightlines, harsh lighting, and poor acoustics, all of which made it difficult for judges, agency staff, detainees, and detainees’ families to hear and see each other.

These factors prevent judges from receiving the information needed to make well-informed decisions and foster an “us versus them” mentality in the courtroom, ultimately discouraging fair hearings and the humane treatment of detainees.

Howard collaborated with CannonDesign, which contributed its expertise pro bono to help reimagine the space. CannonDesign came up with three options, ranging from minor improvements to a total renovation. This fall, stakeholders agreed to move forward with the most aggressive of the redesign options as their first choice, and the Cook County Board President has included the project in her budget for the coming year.

“The Cook County criminal justice stakeholders were supportive in terms of changing the physical design to improve the trust and respect of everyone in the courtroom,” Asheley Van Ness, an Associate Principal with Civic Consulting who leads the public safety practice area said.

By changing the physical courtroom design, the team hopes to improve trust and mutual respect among everyone in the courtroom, ensure judges receive the information they need to make fair bond decisions, and ultimately improve outcomes for detainees and reduce the county jail population.


Step by step

Howard’s background is in education—she worked for several years, in various roles, at the Partnership for Inner-City Education in New York City before coming to the Kellogg School. She said the bond court project was a way to gain a new perspective on issues she encountered in the educational sector.

“I really care about education,” Howard said. “But this summer showed me how interconnected these issues are, and how important it is that places like Civic Consulting Alliance are tackling the multiple factors that impact impoverished communities. I think about schools that I’ve worked in—how much a kid suffers if their parent is being held in jail while awaiting trial, and how that can affect their performance. It’s so interwoven.”

Howard is also expanding her horizons by taking part in the Kellogg Board Fellows (KBF) program, an initiative begun in 2003 to help Kellogg students learn how to become better, more engaged board members. About 50 students are chosen to participate each year, based on a competitive application process. They’re matched with with a nonprofit board of directors and serve about 16 months as nonvoting, ex officio board members.

Sophia Shaw, an adjunct professor of social impact at the Kellogg School and the KBF Director who teaches two courses that are required of all KBF participants, said that program stresses the importance of being “informed, prepared, and cognizant of the responsibilities that we take on when we become a board member.” Having an engaged board, she noted, “helps to ensure that the mission of the organization is fulfilled and stewarded through the vision of its executive director.”

Howard was paired with the Howard Area Community Center, a health and human services organization located in a low-income community on the north-side of Chicago. It’s now celebrating its 50th anniversary and offers support to children and adults through various programming—early childhood education, after-school activities, employment support, and more.

As with the recent bond court project, the KBF experience is, for Howard, yet another step in a journey that has a definite goal, if not a certain destination.

“It speaks to social justice and social impact,” she said, “and to my interest in using the business skills and frameworks I’m developing at Kellogg to help solve social-sector problems.”