Fentress has assessed over 1,200 court facilities throughout the U.S. and with that experience comes a lot of knowledge and A LOT of data. This data can be analyzed to help decision-makers plan for the long-term needs in their courthouses.
Data can play a vital role in answering questions that court planners face every day, such as how many courtrooms will be needed to house future judges or how projects should be prioritized across a courthouse portfolio given limited funding. But perhaps the most immediate question that data can help answer is: what are the areas of concern in my courthouse right now?
In a previous blog I published, Conducting Courthouse Assessments Using Performance Metrics, I discussed the three main goals of assessing courthouses: quantifiable assessments, identifiable deficiencies, and comparable results. In this post, I’d like to share with you the top three areas of deficiencies, or areas of concern, facing the courthouses we have assessed.
Restricted and/or Secure Circulation for Judges
Whether it’s making sure there is a restricted judge’s parking area, a secured and separate entrance to the building, or a path of restricted access from the building entrance to chambers, having restricted and/or secure circulation for judges has to be at the top of the list when it comes to security in a courthouse.
Unfortunately, what we observe across courthouses (more than 60% of the time) is inadequate circulation for judges. Older or historic courthouses are deficient at even higher rates - over 80%.
We recently worked in a state where we witnessed the Chief Justice drive into a public parking lot, walk to the courthouse, and enter through a staff entrance to the public lobby in full view of the security screening area. It is wonderful that the Chief Justice felt little risk in the courthouse, but a secured path from parking to chambers is a best practice in courthouse design and security.
Courtroom Accessibility Requirements
All courtroom areas, including the judge’s bench, witness stand, and jury box, should be accessible or directly adaptable for accessibility according to the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG). In layman’s terms, all of these courtroom areas must be accessible via either a permanent ramp, lift, or similar architectural feature.
Our data show that litigant/counsel tables, lecterns, witness stands, jury boxes, and spectator seating do not meet public accessibility requirements in 55% of the courthouses we’ve assessed.
Some courtrooms do not have ramps to elevated areas, while others are too crowded to allow for the circulation needed for accessibility. A real concern is having enough space in a courtroom, especially the well area, to construct a ramp. We have seen many creative options, including a courtroom with a ramp extending the entire length of the room. The ramp “squeezed” the spectator area and courtroom well to one side while the ramp made a very gradual incline leading up to the jury box and witness stand.
Courtroom Holding Cells
Courtroom holding cells are intended to be located next to courtrooms. As the name suggests, they are used to house detained defendants before, during, or after court proceedings. Ideally, there would be a pair of holding cells between two courtrooms. Having an appropriate number of holding cells in the correct location is key to improving security by avoiding unnecessary detainee movement.
In approximately 40% of all courthouses we have assessed, either too few holding cells are provided in the courthouse, or the pathway between the holding cells and the courtrooms is not secure. In either instance, the safety of the court, security personnel, and the public is a concern.
Lately, we have seen many courts use the central cellblock in the courthouse as the only place for detainee holding. In one particular courthouse, there is one courtroom holding cell per floor. The cells were used for storage and rarely held detainees. Since the holding cells were directly off public corridors, the security personnel walked detainees to a secured elevator and the main courthouse lockup. Getting to the secured elevator required less exposure to the public than escorting the detainees to the holding cells.
Our courthouse assessment models look at hundreds of factors and capture an enormous amount of data on everything from technology to security. Still, these three areas of concern rise to the top consistently.
There are obviously unique concerns for individual courthouses, but in general, focusing on circulation for judges, courtroom accessibility, and holding cells would go a long way in improving the entire inventory of courthouses across the country.