Providing Perimeter Security While Maintaining Access to Justice

By Jim Beight and Craig Clary

Visually presenting access to the judicial process in an open, transparent, and equitable way will always be juxtaposed against the real need to protect the courts and participants in the judicial process from harm. Ranging from very personal issues associated with paternity and child custody to sweeping decisions regarding personal rights, the courts are often engaged in overseeing and deciding issues of great emotional and social impact.

In the National Center for State Courts paper on courthouse security, ”Courthouse Security Incidents Trending Upward: The Challenges Facing State Courts Today,”, Tim Fautsko, Steve Berson, and Steve Swensen discuss the rise in violent acts against courthouse buildings and members of the judiciary, referencing the 2010 study “Court Targeted Acts of Violence,” Center for Judicial and Executive Security. The 2021 U.S. Courts Facilities and Security Annual Report, details the rise in threats to the judiciary and attacks on court facilities, such as when a sustained demonstration and assault on the Portland Federal Courthouse resulted in significant damage to the facility, .

Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe this increase in violent acts against the courts will diminish and now must inform future design. As such, court facility design needs to provide protection for the judicial process while maintaining unrestricted access to the courts for the public.

While available publications and guidelines to assist in mitigating the risk to a courthouse abound, no overarching design standard universally applies. Many states provide guidance through court standards or guidelines. These can be easily referenced when working in a particular state. The federal government is also a good resource, and ”The Interagency Security Committee (ISC) Policies, Standards, Best Practices, Guidance Documents, and White Papers,” is an excellent source for facility security and risk management guidelines.

Under the ISC Security Design Criteria, agency or contractor security experts perform risk assessments, blast analyses, progressive collapse analyses, and other assessments to identify threats and calculate a building’s response to them.

Although some federal agencies have security standards that differ slightly from or supplement the ISC criteria, all federal criteria generally address the same types of threats and countermeasures. However, performance criteria may vary in their assumptions about potential threats and the required performance level of a building’s structure and façade. ISC criteria focuses on deterring and mitigating threats. The site security elements described in this document are meant to prevent these threats from reaching the vulnerable areas of a facility, while maintaining access to the general public.

In the design of new courthouse projects, it is recommended that the design team first research any guidelines or standards that exist for the state where the work is being done.  In Virginia where the author’s practice, security guidelines are provided by the Virginia Supreme Court’s “Virginia Courthouse Facility Guidelines” 2015 edition,

Chapter 8 of this document focuses on court security and provides guidance for site security, building perimeter, access control, secure parking, electronic security control and monitoring systems along with video surveillance (CCTV). As it relates to perimeter security, the Virginia Guidelines recommends a 50’ vehicular standoff distance.

In the design of new facilities, it is recommended that a variety of landscape features combined with decorative bollards be used to provide the required security while projecting an image of openness and accessibility to the judicial system.  As much as possible the design team should incorporate landscape features such as planters, stepped walkways, and bench seating. These landscape site features can be linked together with decorative bollards to complete the security barrier. Vehicular access control should be limited as much as possible.  Ideally to a singular access point onto the site, which restricts and controls vehicular access to the site.  Activity on the court grounds should be monitored by CCTV and the sheriff’s security staff. The resulting design can result in a facility that is both secure and welcoming to the local citizens.

Jim Beight, AIA, LEED AP, Senior Principal, Practice Segment Leader, has devoted much of his career to justice architecture and is an industry recognized expert in courts planning and design. He leads the national courts practice for Dewberry and as a result has led the efforts of significant, award-winning court projects throughout the country. He has worked with all levels of the judiciary system from federal judges and the Administrative Office of the US Courts to local municipalities and state groups all across the country. Through this work and his wider involvement in the justice community, he has developed a thorough understanding of the issues facing the Courts today. Jim is based in Dewberry’s Fairfax, Va., office.

Craig Clary, DBIA is a Senior Security Designer and Senior Project Manager for Dewberry, with over 28 years of experience, he has focused completely on security designs in justice facilities over the last 12 years. Having worked on Federal, State and Local facilities across the country, he has a vast experience with internal and perimeter security applications to enhance the safety and security of staff, visitors and detainees. Craig is based in Dewberry’s Peoria, Ill., office.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the May/June 2024 issue of Correctional News.