With only one holding cell, Lowell Superior Court shackles female prisoners to a chair in a hallway. At the nearby district court, which a top court official described as “jammed to the gills,” judges pass through the crowds in their robes and the lone elevator switches between prisoner transport and use for the general public.
“This is totally unacceptable, I mean just grotesque, in terms of, among other things, constitutional standards. That courthouse has worn out its years as a courthouse,” said Court Administrator Harry Spence, who said construction of a new 17-courtroom justice center in Lowell is the judiciary’s “highest priority.”
Spence told the House Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets on Wednesday that a study determined needed repairs at the state’s 101 courthouses would cost $3 billion, an insurmountable sum, which led court officials to look at consolidating real estate.
The first focus for consolidations, which require legislative approval, will be the 15 smallest courthouses where the lack of activity drives up the cost, he said.
“If we were Walmarts we would have shut down every one of those. They’d be loss leaders for the system,” said Spence, adding that in some cases, such as Great Barrington, the expensive court house must remain in place to serve the area. He said, “If we don’t make those decisions on the contraction of the system, the system will still contract, but it will contract in an unplanned, irrational and crisis method, through the gradual failure of systems in court houses that have to be closed.”
Construction of a new Lowell facility would allow the aging Cambridge Family and Probate Court, which is now nearly the only place for family court in all Middlesex County, to shut its doors, moving proceedings to Lowell and to a new southern Middlesex justice complex likely in Somerville or Malden, Spence said.
“We have to close that courthouse. It must be closed,” Spence said of the east Cambridge facility, which he said is plagued with structural problems and has the worst accessibility of all the court buildings.
The Middlesex Superior Court, moved from a high rise in East Cambridge with a jail at the top, to rental space along Interstate 95 in Woburn, which Spence said in written testimony is “very expensive.” The district court was moved to rental space in Medford, and the old building is slated for redevelopment.
A new 30-court facility in Malden or Somerville would be able to temporarily house the Suffolk Superior Court, currently residing in a high-rise near the State House with drafty windows, structural problems and 1930s-era elevators, Spence said.
“Over the next 10 years there is a strong likelihood that that building will be forcibly evacuated,” Spence told the panel of lawmakers.
In the next few months, Spence hopes to present a plan for closing a small number of courts, which he said will serve as the foundation for future closures over the next five to seven years.
Spence told the News Service court officials will meet with municipal leaders in the area where a courthouse is suggested for closure, and any closure would require legislative action.
Consolidation offers opportunities for savings on overhead and better use of clerks and courtrooms to meet particular needs, Spence said, singling out the consolidation of Framingham and Natick courts as an example of what not to do.
“It is, frankly, an operational disaster. It’s an operational disaster,” said Spence, who said the operations of the two courts were not integrated.
Construction of a regional justice center in Greenfield offers new efficiencies, as clerks will spend Mondays in district court dealing with the usual glut of weekend arrests and Thursdays in housing court, dealing with the fallout from evictions, Spence said.
Spence said the judiciary is developing a capital plan, and said Quincy District Court is a “mess,” the Springfield Hall of Justice is “exhausted” and Taunton Superior Court “no longer keeps the weather out.”
About a year and a half into his new position overseeing administrative aspects of the Trial Court, Spence, who was involved in the state’s receivership of Chelsea in the 1990s, focused in on Lowell, whose courts he visited on Tuesday.
“This is a city where there is significant gang activities,” said Spence, who noted the prisoner transfer into Lowell Superior is a backdoor on a public street. He said, “This is right on the street on a public street. It’s probably the most dangerous transfer point in the state.”
Chairman Antonio Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat, said the New Bedford Superior Court has the same kind of prisoner transfer, which is why the high-profile murder case of former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez is taking place in Fall River, a more modern facility.
“My staff will follow up to schedule a trip to New Bedford,” said Cabral, who said he hopes for a regional justice center in his city as well.
Spence, who is traveling to the state’s 101 courthouses, said he had not yet visited the courts in New Bedford.
The judiciary has already purchased the property for the Lowell justice center for $11 million, and Spence said Middlesex Community College and UMass Lowell both expressed interest in using the district court building, located downtown, and the Superior Court, which is in a “beautiful” if antiquated building.
The judiciary is emerging from a period of shortened public hours at many courts and judges and other court officials are receiving their first pay raises in years.
Spence said he is “optimistic” about the potential to dramatically change the courts’ operations, and said 90 percent of court employees surveyed said they are in favor of change.
“I thought 10 percent would be in favor of change,” Spence said. He said capital improvements are the “most daunting challenge” in the courts.
Spence said the judiciary plans to hire new regional directors for the east and west who will work with judicial leadership to ensure more efficient use of courtrooms.
“In general, the history of the Massachusetts court system is the judge says, ‘My courtroom is my court room. If it’s empty, nobody else uses it,’” Spence said. “We need to make a shift. We need to recognize that’s not an efficient way to operate.”