NORTH ADAMS - State officials saidWednesday that a new initiative to streamline the trial court system won't shut down Northern Berkshire District Court any time soon, but could bring major changes.
Chief Justice of the Trial Court of Massachusetts Paula Carey and Massachusetts Trial Court Administrator Harry Spence visited Northern Berkshire Juvenile Court Friday to gauge the implementation of the state trial court's new strategic plan.
Carey and Spence are meeting with court employees across the state in hopes to improve the trial court system and implement their new strategic plan, which went into effect this summer.
The officials noted the importance of the North Adams courts - District and Juvenile - to the community. Court employees told Carey and Spence crime has increased in the area, bringing on more cases.
The employees also told Carey and Spence that if there was not a court in North Adams, it could take some people in North County almost 2 hours to reach the Pittsfield court.
Spence said that the Central Berkshire District Court in Pittsfield would not have the space to handle the additional caseload if the North Adams courts were closed.
"They're really challenged at times," Carey said of Berkshire County courts.
The strategic plan seeks to create a trial court system with "justice with dignity and speed," through implementing new technologies, establishing more drug and veterans courts, and consolidating some services.
The plan shows that the District Court has a relatively high cost per case filed and low volume of total cases relative to other courts in the state.
"A close look should be taken at the continued operation of these courthouses," the report states.
But, Spence pointed out, closing the courthouses in North Adams would significantly reduce "access to justice" for many in the county - a major factor in deciding whether or not to consolidate courts. "It's important for the court to be here," Carey said.
Carey added that Northern Berkshire's costs are higher because it does not own, but leases its buildings.
Despite its small size, the District Court does certain things "ahead of the curve," Spence said. For example, the Juvenile Court staggers its schedule with the District Court to ease the burden on lawyers representing defendants at both places.
Spence also lauded the District Court's "teamwork" between its employees and judges.
However, there are obstacles to implementing the strategic plan in Berkshire County, Spence and Carey said.
They said the state trial court is hoping to create more drug courts across the state to proactively treat addiction and reduce recidivism rates.
But in Berkshire County, creating an effective Drug Court would be difficult, Spence said, because there are limited options for drug treatment.
Carey and Spence are also pushing for an increase in veterans courts across the state.
Regardless of whether these types of courts are established in Berkshire County, the new plan will likely create change for staff at local courts and the community that uses them.
People calling the court with basic questions - such as when he or she is scheduled to appear in court - may soon be directed to a regional call center instead of a court clerk. Spence says this transition will save clerks time while providing the same level of service to the caller.
The state is also piloting an electronic criminal complaint application program that it expects will save clerks countless hours.
More than 750,000 criminal complaints in Massachusetts are still filed on paper by hand every day.
There will be about a two-year learning curve for all the changes, Spence said, but that the new plan will improve the effectiveness of the courts in delivering justice.