Tight Budgets Strap State and Local Courts


IN the frenzied morning atmosphere at Dorchester District Court, assistant court clerk James Buckley rarely finds time to catch his breath. Dashing from one end of the room to the other, Mr. Buckley answers queries from the lawyers, police officers, and juveniles who crowd into the office.

He scoots back to his desk to answer the telephone; another clerk interrupts with a question.

``I like to keep busy,'' he says with an exasperated smile. ``But what we're doing here is spinning wheels.''

With 14 vacant clerical positions, stacks of unfinished filing, and an ancient overhead air conditioner that ``makes a racket,'' work can get pretty frustrating, Buckley acknowledges.

``They've got to bring the court system into the 20th century,'' he says.

State budget cuts are placing an enormous strain on the already overburdened Massachusetts court system, say legal experts.

According to Massachusetts Bar Association president Leo Boyl, projected funding for the state's courts in fiscal year 1991 is down 10.5 percent from 1989.

In addition, 11 percent of authorized job slots remain vacant, court buildings are deteriorating, and record keeping is outdated and inefficient.

The budget problems facing the Bay State's criminal-justice system are not unique. All over the country, courts are functioning with decreasing resources and increasing caseloads.

More than 98 million new cases were filed in state courts alone in 1988, an increase of more than 4 million filings compared to 1987, according to the most recent statistics available from the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va.

Legal experts say the problem is particularly severe in urban areas. Northeastern states with budget shortfalls are struggling to cope with crowded court dockets.

In Vermont a backlog of court cases forced a five-month suspension of all civil jury trials last January.

A clogged docket in one New Hampshire county courthouse forced a three-month ban on civil jury trials there last year.

In New York City, crowded conditions are so bad that judges in the Bronx Housing Court hold sessions in 13- by 15-foot miniaturized courtrooms, slightly larger than some elevators.

``The system just scrambles from one crisis to the next,'' says James Neuhard of the American Bar Association (ABA).

Lawyers and judges often point to the nation's ``war on drugs,'' which has led to a steady stream of arrests and criminal cases.

They argue that although Congress and the Bush administration have allocated more money for police and prosecutors, the underfunded court system barely limps along.

The deluge of court cases has affected all levels in the judicial system. But the impact at the local level is where the average Joe or Jill feels it the most.

It often means the hard-working citizen who wants his ``day in court'' gets pushed aside, say observers of the system.

Civil matters ranging from minor traffic violations to divorce, child custody, or landlord-tenant disputes get shoved to the back burner.

At the same time, lawyers are encouraged to settle cases and avoid costly, time-consuming trials.

The result is public loss of confidence in the justice system, Mr. Neuhard says.

``People are called down many, many times and they never get into a courtroom.... They're treated like mushrooms,'' he says. ``Cases are settled by lawyers behind closed doors. That sense of closing off justice from the public view is the single greatest loss.''

Working within the system is just as frustrating, say court officials.

In the Dorchester court, chief probation officer Bernie Fitzgerald says a two-year hiring freeze has forced him to manage with six vacant probation officer positions.

Morale in his office is low. Extra work required of his staff leads to job stress, he says, often resulting in more sick days than usual being taken.

``You have to have that personality where you just keep plugging away,'' Fitzgerald says.

Besides the extra workload, the job itself can be frustrating in this high-crime, inner-city neighborhood, Mr. Fitzgerald says. There are few ``success stories,'' he admits.

Critics who look at Dorchester court - or the many others like it around the country - point to a lack of resources. They say the country's third branch of government has difficulty competing with other government programs for money.

According to Neuhard of the ABA, courts receive in general less than 2 percent of the general funds made available in state and county budgets.

Legal experts fault politicians, who demand more money for tougher law enforcement while they criticize the justice system for being slow, inefficient, and easy on criminals.

``The big problem is the underfunding,'' says Robert Raven, former president of the ABA. ``The politicians don't have the guts to admit they [the courts] need more money.''

But resources aren't the only answer, some observers say.

Judge James Dolan of the Dorchester court argues that tighter management of the entire court system is more important than resources.

He envisions the judicial system operating like a private corporation.

Judges, who also act as administrators in courthouses, need to be given the same kind of managerial powers as a corporate executive, Judge Dolan says.

In the present system, they have virtually no authority over court budgets or staff hiring. Such operational decisions must be approved by a legislature.

``Judges, who are in positions of authority, have got to have clearly defined power to manage,'' Dolan says.

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