There are few traditions in our nation as cherished as that of free-and-open access to justice. Free and open access to justice requires a safe and secure environment in which all those who come to the courthouse are free from fear and intimidation. Judges, employees, and the public users of the facility need to feel safe if they are to conduct themselves in a fair and impartial manner and in accordance with a sense of judicial decorum.

Security measures, however, should remain as unobtrusive as possible. The use of overt security measures evokes an image of justice held hostage.

Architecturally, security is provided through the clear separation of circulation routes

or participants in the proceedings and the elimination of spaces

where a weapon or bomb might be placed.

Adopt a broad approach to court security: assess the likelihood of all potential threats. Plan for the site, landscaping, building exterior, internal organization and circulations systems, and environmental and building systems to maximize the security and safety of all three critical assets:

  • People: Judges, court staff and all visitors
  • Property: Physical structures, equipment, and facilities
  • Information: Records contained in the courthouse

Security is achieved through a combination of architectural/physical, personnel and operations, and technological/equipment measures. The appropriate choice depends on the costs of construction and operations, propriety, legality, effectiveness of responses, adaptability to change, administrative control, and timeliness.

A key element in courthouse security is the separation of the public, judiciary and staff, and in-custody defendants. In small rural courthouses this may be achieved through operational means, but in larger courthouses this is best achieved architecturally through the maintenance of three separate and distinct circulation systems.

Architectural features that enhance safety include all of the following:

  • A single point of public entry to the building.
  • An entry screening station where everyone entering the courthouse is screened for weapons.
  • Separation of public, judicial/staff, and prisoner circulation systems.
  • Secure vehicular sally port for transfer of prisoners to and from the building.
  • Use of central and court-floor in-custody holding areas accessed by secure circulation.
  • Sufficient public waiting space to separate opposing parties, particularly in domestic cases.
  • Use of large open spaces to increase visibility and the elimination of blind areas and dead ends within the building or places where people can hide.
  • Intrusion systems to monitor the status of doors, windows, and other exterior openings in the building.
  • Access control systems to control entry to restricted areas of the building.
  • Fences, walls, or other physical barriers to define the perimeter of the building and prevent attacks on the exterior of the building.
  • Exterior lighting to illuminate accesses to the building and parking areas.
  • Separate secure parking for the judiciary within the building with secure access to the building and the private circulation.
  • A building-wide public address system for communicating emergency information.

For more information, see Court Security Handbook - Ten Essentials Elements for Court Security and Emergency Preparedness drafted by the Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ)/Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA) Joint Committee on Court Security.

Clients have also found the NCSC resources Steps to Best Practices for Court Building Security, as well as the Court Security Resource Guide sub-site, to be particularly helpful.

See also:

More Planning Considerations: