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Top Security Concerns in Courthouses

by Pam Kendall / March 15, 2024

Everything from gun violence in schools to protests leading to riots to cybersecurity threats bombard our news feeds on social media and take up residence in the back of our minds (or sometimes it is front and center) as we face the world daily. 

Courthouses are no exception to security concerns and must be prepared for a myriad of threats, such as biological threats, explosives, and terrorism, just to name a few. Some of you might have even seen a video of a defendant leaping over a judge’s bench to attack a judge recently, but I digress… that is a blog that will have to wait for another day.

Having assessed over 1,200 court facilities throughout the U.S., Fentress has seen numerous security concerns firsthand. Examples include using lawn furniture in detainee-holding cells, having disconnected duress alarms, or locating judges’ chambers directly off public hallways.

But what are the top courthouse security concerns that are seen most frequently? What security issues do we see repeatedly? 

In a blog I recently published, Top Three Courthouse Problem Areas, I discussed the main deficiencies facing the courthouses we assessed. Now, I’d like to focus on security.


What makes courthouses unique is having three separate circulation paths: secure circulation for detainees, restricted circulation for judges and staff, and public circulation. These paths should only meet in the courtrooms.

Unfortunately, this is not the case in many courthouses, and circulation is usually the top security concern discussed with us on-site. Looking at our courthouse assessment data, we have found inadequate circulation in more than 70% of the courthouses. Older or historic courthouses are deficient at even higher rates—over 90%.

Secure Circulation

For secure circulation, detainees should enter the courthouse through a secured sallyport and have a separate circulation path to central holding cells, courtroom holding cells, and the courtroom.

Often, this secure circulation path is not achievable in existing court facilities designed for a past era of security. If this pathway does not exist, managing detainees in the courthouse requires more manpower and technology.

It is concerning when detainees encounter judges, jurors, witnesses who testify against them, etc. To avoid these circumstances, we have seen creative prisoner pathways, including walking detainees through a courthouse attic, across a catwalk, down a fire escape, and straight through a judge’s chambers to get to the courtroom.

Restricted Circulation

Judges require restricted circulation. This typically includes a restricted parking area for judges under the courthouse or otherwise enclosed on the premises. From the parking area, judges enter the courthouse through a separate door and into a restricted pathway that can take them to their chambers and courtrooms without crossing the paths of prisoners or the public. This pathway is restricted for the judges but is often used by key personnel and visitors that the judges invite to their chambers.

We recently assessed a courthouse where the judge parks on the public curb outside the courthouse and walks through the public circulation pattern to get to his office. He entertained us with stories about compromising situations because the courthouse lacked restricted circulation.

He recounted when the brother of a defendant he had just sentenced was waiting by his car to confront the judge about his decision. This prime example is why courthouses need restricted circulation to protect judges.

Public Circulation

Public circulation starts as a progression to the courthouse entrance and into a lobby area with security screening. The lobby should have sufficient space to accommodate a queue moving through the security screening area. After screening, the public should be able to proceed to courtrooms or to visit departments in the courthouse without crossing secure or restricted circulation.

Physical/Architectural Security

A courthouse's architectural and physical attributes can also lead to security concerns. We frequently encounter courthouses with one or more of the following concerns:

  • Courthouses located near other buildings with clear sightlines into restricted areas. Being able to observe the movements of judges and juries is a particular concern.
  • The lack of a proper setback between the courthouse and adjacent streets can be a security concern for explosives. A setback from parking lots and roadways of 100 feet is preferable, with 50 feet being the minimum.
  • There are no protective barriers, such as bollards, planters, or other features, to prevent vehicles from crashing into the courthouse.
  • Courthouses with exteriors that are not resistant to explosions or do not incorporate progressive collapse into the facility construction.

These inadequacies are difficult to rectify in an existing structure, but they are important security design elements that should be considered when constructing a new courthouse.

Final Thoughts

We live in a time when judges are threatened, and acts of violence take place in courtrooms and courthouses with more frequency. Courthouses must have a safe and secure environment for an effective justice system and to provide the best service possible to us as citizens.

There are unique concerns for individual courthouses, but in general, focusing on appropriate circulation for judges, the public, and prisoners, along with architectural design features with security as the primary goal, would go a long way in improving the level of security found in the entire inventory of courthouses across the country.

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Tags: Courthouse Security

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Pam Kendall

Pam Kendall

Pam Kendall is a statistical data analyst and web developer who likes to spend her free time playing guitar, hanging out with friends, and traveling.