Exodus of employees slows courts, raises safety concerns

droves of employees are leaving the state’s court system, slowing down the delivery of justice and raising safety concerns inside courtrooms.

To cope with budget cutbacks, court officials imposed a hiring freeze in October 2008 and followed that up by offering voluntary retirement incentives in fiscal years 2009, 2010, and 2011.

The incentives, principally a $7,500 cash payment, worked. Hundreds of employees left, at a pace of almost one a day. But the exodus continued even when the retirement incentives ended. Court officials say the combination of a shrinking workforce and a caseload that is not abating is prompting many employees to leave.

Joan Kenney, a spokeswoman for the courts, says the monthly average number of people leaving the court system was 24 in fiscal year 2009, 34 in fiscal 2010, 29 in fiscal 2011, and 28 through the first four months of the current fiscal year.

Budget cuts are spurring the staff reductions. The Trial Court’s current budget is $532 million, down $52 million, or about 9 percent, from fiscal year 2009.?In all, 894 employees have left the state’s court system over the last two-and-a-half years, a 12 percent drop. The courts employ 6,380 people today, compared to 7,274 as of July 1, 2009. Kenney says attrition has been across every court department and not concentrated in any specific areas.

John Ferrara, an attorney nominated by Gov. Deval Patrick to be a Superior Court judge, testified during his confirmation hearing in December that courts in western Massachu­setts lack adequate clerical and security help.

“They’re understaffed in terms of court officers,” he says. “I had a murder case in August that had to be continued because they didn’t have enough court officers to staff the courtroom.”

Staffing models indicate the courts as a whole are operating with 77 percent of the employees they need. Boston Municipal Court is the best off, at 91 percent of its optimal staffing level. The District Court is at 76 percent and the Land Court is at 52 percent.

Manpower and money may have declined, but the caseload has not. Kenney says more than 1 million new cases are filed annually, putting a severe strain on the remaining workers.

About a third of the state’s courts have responded by closing the doors of the clerk’s office and not taking calls from the public for an hour or two each day so workers can have uninterrupted time to catch up with paperwork. Courts in Attleboro, Haverhill, Lowell, Malden, Waltham, Natick, Lawrence, Lynn, Somerville, and Springfield are among those that have reduced their public hours.

The remaining courts are stretched thin, in part because a bid by court administrators to close some court facilities and reallocate staff was shot down by the Legislature earlier this year.

Kenney says court security is a problem. “It has become increasingly challenging to provide the level of protection for the public and court employees that we believe is appropriate,” she says.

In late November, fighting broke out among spectators at Quincy District Court during the arraignment of four teens who were accused of murdering a 21-year-old from Randolph.

Mark Coven, presiding justice of the Quincy court, said careful advance planning by staff averted what could have turned into a brawl. He said extra court officers were called in prior to the arraignment from other courts along with members of the Quincy and Randolph police. The law enforcement officials were able to move between groups with ties to the defendants and the victim to break up the fighting before it escalated. Coven says it is standard procedure to call in outside help during potentially volatile cases.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Coven says staff cutbacks are hindering the Quincy court’s ability to process the more than 40,000 cases that come in each year. “It means lengthy delays in the workings of the court,” he says.

He says the problem is likely to worsen since four to five more people in the Quincy clerk’s office are expected to retire in the next few months. “It’s not as if the work goes away,” Coven says. “If you’re being asked to do the work of all the other people that retired and there’s no help on the way, why wouldn’t you go out under that sort of pressure?”