Budget Cuts and Recession Threaten Court Security
By: Gerri L Elder
Four court-related murders in Illinois and Georgia during 2005 caused many federal and state court judges, prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys across the country to elevate the level of security at courthouses and seek personal protection for judges.
According to The National Law Journal, security has quickly improved, but there are still vulnerable areas that need work. Some state courts say that the economic recession may delay planned improvements.
The state of California is experiencing an extreme budget deficit crisis, yet the judicial system needs $27 million for security in 2009. Without this funding, the courts will not be able to afford the necessary weapons screening, cameras and duress alarms to secure courthouses.
In Ohio, Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis said that he is considering reassigning deputies who provide courthouse security. This may be necessary because of the recession and budget cuts, in order to maintain patrols in other areas.
Judges and lawmakers also note that many courthouses need construction to improve security. Older courthouses often require witnesses, jurors and the public use the same hallways as prisoners, creating situations that may lead to violence.
Judge Dwayne Steidley of Rogers County, Okla., a former state legislator, told The National Law Journal that county commissioners are responsible for courthouse funding. He said security guard salaries are approved through the sheriff’s budget and partially funded through collection of court fees. Steidley also said at the last three judges’ conferences, judicial security has been a hot topic.
Security Threat Information Isolated
Court officials have found the lack of coordination between law enforcement agencies to report and track security threats is also hindering courthouse security. There is currently no system in place allowing separate jurisdictions and states to share threat information.
The U.S. Marshals Service is the government agency that protects federal judges and investigates threats. Daniel S. Hall, assistant chief of protective intelligence in the judicial security division, said that the division recently included state and local law enforcement in judicial security training for the first time.
Under California state law, threats against judges are required to be reported to the California Highway Patrol. The CHP keeps records of threats made against elected officials; however, Malcolm Franklin, senior manager of emergency response and security unit for the Administrative Office of the Courts, said that few local county sheriffs are aware of the law.
According to Franklin, the threat reports that the California Highway Patrol receives are not shared with other law enforcement agencies. He said a 2005 survey of 855 California judges found 296 threats, of which 75 percent were made against specific judges, court employees or family members. These specific threats are rarely reported to law enforcement agencies outside of the CHP.
Courts across the country are concerned about threats and how best to improve security, even when faced with drastic budget cuts due to the poor economy.