Court leaders eye supervision as jail time alternative

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STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, OCT. 20, 2015…..Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants on Tuesday questioned the imposition of fees on indigent defendants, highlighted the scarcity of post-prison supervision, and suggested reforms to sentencing could free up money for other areas of the state’s justice system.

“Should we not stop and ask, ‘Who are we asking to pay these fees?'” Gants asked in a speech about the state of the judiciary at the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Bench-Bar Symposium.

Gants said that 46 percent of people released from state prison in 2012 had no post-release parole or probation, which he said is “one of the highest rates of unsupervised release in the nation.”

Gants mulled the possibility of allowing judges to impose post-release supervision for a single conviction, and suggested additional supervision could be funded by decreasing the length and rate of incarceration.

The chief justice also discussed efforts to foster faster, more efficient civil trials, including dedicated civil sessions in the district courts and the Boston Municipal Court.

“Slow, expensive litigation is the way of the dinosaur,” Gants said. “If we do not find ways to make litigation faster and make the cost of litigation proportionate to the amount at issue, litigants will simply find other ways to resolve their disputes – ways that will almost certainly be less fair, less transparent, and that will starve our common law by diverting the cases that enrich it from our public courts.”

While Gants told the News Service the new dedicated civil sessions will not require more judges, Court Administrator Harry Spence previewed a budgetary ask for the probation department, which he said has adopted evidence-based tools and will need more personnel.

“Probation work will no longer be based on a hunch or on someone’s notion of common sense. It will be based on evidence,” Spence told the assembled lawyers and judges at the John Adams Courthouse. He said, “This will make probation supervision a far more powerful alternative to incarceration.”

Gants said he joined Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg and Gov. Charlie Baker in calling for a review of the Massachusetts criminal justice system by the Council of State Governments and Pew Center on the States.

“I am committed to follow the data and allow it to drive the analysis, letting the chips fall where they may,” said Gants, who said he is sure “common ground” can be found on sentencing.

The Massachusetts incarceration rate is less than half the national average, but three times the 1980 rate, while today’s violent crime rate is 22 percent lower than in 1980, Gants said. He said if Massachusetts were a country its incarceration rate would be behind only the United States, Russia, Cuba, El Salvador, Thailand, Azerbaijan and Rwanda.

The chief justice also keyed in on the fees imposed on indigent defendants, tallying up the $150 indigent counsel fee, the $780 fee for a year of supervised probation and the $90 felony victim-witness fee for a total of $1,020 owed by a defendant convicted of one felony and sentenced to a year of supervised probation.

The state takes in about $30 million per year from those fees, including $21 million from probation supervision fees, $7 million from indigent counsel fees and $2.4 million in victim-witness fees, Gants said. He said about 75 percent of criminal defendants are indigent and questioned the practice of asking probation officers to be “debt collectors.”

Spence said the computerization of the court system will allow a staff reduction through attrition and he envisioned a new court clerk staff that is smaller and more technologically savvy.

“Paper will be a relatively scarce commodity within the Trial Court,” said Spence, who predicted that by July 2018, “at least 85 percent” of the Trial Court will be digitized.

Two weeks ago the last county in the Superior Court system converted to an integrated case-management system and Worcester District Court recently began a civil e-filing system, said Spence, who said he hopes that in two years nearly every police department will file criminal complaints electronically.

In early 2016, the Trial Court will roll out e-filing “across the Commonwealth,” said Spence, who predicted e-filing would be “the norm” in two years and “will be mandatory for lawyers by the end of fiscal year 2018.”

Gants discussed a three-tiered approach for improving civil litigation that he said would “bear fruit this winter,” including the dedicated district court civil sessions that will prevent cases from being interrupted by criminal matters.

“It would be a realignment of judges,” Gants told the News Service about the new civil sessions.

With the agreement of all parties, “various lower-cost options” that Gants termed “high quality fast food” will be available as an alternative to the “three course meal” of the current civil trial process.

Judges will also monitor cases more closely, said Gants who anticipated a Supreme Judicial Court move toward discovery that is “proportional” to the case.

Once the civil sessions have demonstrated they can “efficiently handle” the cases, the courts will “reopen the idea of increasing the procedural limit” in district courts from $25,000 to $50,000, Gants said. He told the News Service the Supreme Judicial Court would be able to lift the limit by order.

“The SJC has the authority legislatively to do that,” Gants said.

Copyright 2015 State House News Service

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