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Budget cuts force tough choices on court security


On many days, the metal detectors sit silent at the busiest courthouse in Maine.

People arriving for everything from child custody hearings to murder trials walk through the machines without a beep. The detectors are off because the court can’t pay for officers to run them.

With the recession prompting steep cuts to state and local budgets, courts around the country are facing the tough decision of whether to reduce court services or cut back on security. For many, it’s a disturbing choice in a post-9/11 world.

Those safety concerns have only increased after last week’s fatal shooting at a Las Vegas courthouse and the release of a report that found threats to federal judges and prosecutors have doubled in recent years.

“When cuts are made to security staff, it compromises the safety of the courthouse,” said Timm Fautsko, a security expert for the National Center for State Courts.

“People feel that court security is one area that should receive special consideration for funding since it involves protecting the general public who comes to courthouses for services,” he said.

But some courts have already reduced security staff; others might have to consider it if budget problems don’t get better soon. A few just aren’t filling long-held vacancies.

“It’s a question of do you want to close courthouses and run (fewer) courthouses with full security? Or do you want to keep all your courthouses open and compromise on security?” said Mary Ann Lynch, a spokeswoman for Maine’s court system.

The security decision is particularly challenging for larger courts in urban areas that may feel more of an economic squeeze, Fautsko said. Also, some court administrators may be reluctant to discuss cutbacks for fear their courthouses would become vulnerable, he said.

In Birmingham, Ala., Judge Suzanne Childers keeps a silver .38-caliber Smith and Wesson under her bench after county officials let her two courtroom deputies go because of a budget shortfall.

“I feel like I need some kind of protection, both for me, my staff and the general public,” said Childers, who often has angry people battling over divorce or child custody issues in her courtroom. “I don’t want to be in a situation where I’m on the bench and I’m a sitting duck.”

To help save money, many courthouses have closed one day a month, furloughed employees and temporarily delayed jury trials.

In Massachusetts, vacant court officer jobs haven’t been filled in the last 15 months, and the courts stopped using about 30 temporary workers who filled in for officers out sick or on vacation. The reductions have delayed hearings because officers are shuffled around to different courtrooms.

“Juggling is an everyday occurrence,” said Joan Kenney, a Massachusetts court system spokeswoman.

The cutbacks in state courts come as threats to federal judges and prosecutors have jumped dramatically. The government report issued last week found such threats more than doubled in the past six years, growing from 592 in 2003 to 1,278 in 2008.

The day the report was released, a man who lost a lawsuit over his Social Security benefits opened fire in a federal courthouse in Las Vegas, killing a security guard and wounding a U.S. marshal. After the shooting, authorities announced a nationwide review of federal courthouse security.

It was not the first time a deadly shooting rampage prompted officials to examine security.

In 2005, an inmate being escorted to his rape trial in Atlanta stole a deputy’s gun, shot and killed a judge, sheriff’s deputy and court stenographer, and later, an off-duty federal agent.

That shooting led some courts to add security cameras, install panic buttons for judges, clerks and security officers, and increase training.

Court officials in Maine won’t say how often their metal detectors are unattended, but local defense attorney Robert Ruffner said many days no one is at the door to check for weapons. Maine has not fully staffed its metal detectors for years, but the problem became much worse after sharp budget cuts.

“Until something tragic happens, they are not willing to make the hard choices to give the judicial branch the money it needs,” Ruffner said.

Though in New York, court officials have added officers, going from about 3,600 in 2005 to 4,100 now.

“Post-9/11, this was an area that we simply had to focus on because the safety of everyone in a courthouse is paramount,” said David Bookstaver, a New York state courts spokesman.

For Childers, the loss of deputies in her Alabama courtroom is inconceivable. She began bringing her gun to work after the county commission suggested she have her two female assistants make sure her courtroom is secure by checking that no one unauthorized to be there is inside.

“My comment was, ‘OK, what do they do if they find someone in there?’” she said. “Throw paper clips at them?”

(Denise Lavoie is an AP Legal Affairs Writer)