Our conversations with judges and staff in the Massachusetts Trial Court over the last two months suggest that cases are becoming more resource intensive in ways that our founding brothers and sisters in the law could never have predicted. The increasing demand for resources can be the result of societal problems but also statutory changes.
Take, for example, Massachusetts’ 21 drug courts, 3 mental health courts, 1 homelessness court, and 1 veteran’s court. All were established for the purpose of reducing recidivism, an action we applaud. Specialty courts offer judges and staff who have become experts at dealing with complex social issues and know what services are available in particular communities to help these vulnerable populations.
The Trial Court’s Strategic Plan emphasizes the expansion of specialty courts, and we think that’s a good thing. As you may have heard, keeping a defendant in a prison cell costs more than a year of college. So in the long term, any program that keeps defendants out of trouble and out of the courtroom will realize significant savings. But in the short term, these specialty court cases involve weekly or bi-weekly probation and review sessions over an extended period. This in turn creates more work for judges, clerks, probation officers, and also security staff.
Let’s take the Juvenile Courts as an example. Did you know that when the “Child in Need of Services” statute of 1973 gave way to the “Child Requiring Assistance” statute of 2012, life became a lot more complex for the Juvenile Court. As Juvenile Court Judge Dana Gershengorn wrote in an article for the Boston Bar Journal last summer, these cases “are truly unique in their confluence of complex mental health issues, substance abuse concerns, and family dynamics.”
Clerk’s offices are now required to explain the “Child Requiring Assistance” statute to those who are thinking of filing. And referring them to the 211 or Essential Community Services currently in place requires more work up front. Also, the specificity of time lines in the statute creates more complexity.
Other factors of a case’s complexity include number of docket entries, number of parties, number of documents filed, number of motions, and number of court events. The use of translators – essential for witnesses and defendants of limited English proficiency – also adds to the complexity of a case.
So as you can see, when we consider matters pending before the court, the case numbers tell only a portion of the story. We need to remember that achieving a just result in some cases requires considerably more time and resources than we might ever imagine.