December 11, 2017
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Chief justice: Courts must change to address addiction, domestic violence, document access

By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff
Updated:
miles Greenacre | Maine Judicial Branch | BDN
miles Greenacre | Maine Judicial Branch | BDN
Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley

AUGUSTA, Maine — In her annual address to the Legislature, Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley said the court system must change the way it operates to better address the state’s opiate addiction crisis, domestic violence and access to court documents.

More people died last year from drug overdoses than were victims of homicide in the last decade, she said late Thursday afternoon to a joint session of the House and Senate. Overdose deaths totaled 378 in 2016 compared to the 258 people who were killed between 2006 and 2016.

“Even more frightening, in 2016 there were 2,380 administrations of Narcan, up from 1,565 in 2015,” Saufley said, referring to the drug that can immediately reverse the effects of an overdose. “And, the saddest number of all, there were 1,024 drug-affected babies born in 2016, up from 1,013 in 2015.”

The chief justice said the state’s six adult drug courts, the co-occurring disorders court and the veteran’s court along with the criminal and family courts must consider updated models to help more people. She urged consideration of re-entry programs for people leaving prison, diversion programs for treatment, and wrap-around programs that involve families, housing and jobs.

“None of this is cheap, but nothing is more expensive than allowing our state to sink further into the horror and sadness of an addiction crisis,” Saufley told lawmakers.

Of the 258 victims of homicide between 2006 and 2016, Saufley said that 126, or nearly half, were classified as domestic violence homicides. About 75 of those, or about 60 percent, “did not have any meaningful contact with the Maine courts before they were killed.”

“We must stop assuming that the victim will always ask for help,” the chief justice said. “As neighbors, family members, employers and service providers, we must all be alert for the signs of isolation, control and impending violence that are harbingers of real lethality. And, we must not look away and assume that someone else will take care of it.”

She said that going forward at bail hearings and sentencings in domestic violence cases prosecutors must provide judges with the defendants’ Maine and national criminal history records, a statement or presentation from the victim or victims, and the Ontario Domestic Abuse Risk Assessment or other risk assessment score that measures the likelihood a defendant will reoffend if released.

Over the next few years, the courts will move from a paper system to an electronic one with the help of Tyler Technologies, the chief justice said. The Violations Bureau, which handles 85,000 to 100,000 traffic cases each year will be the first to go online in late 2018. The pilot project for the courts will be in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties and will start a year later. The rest of the courts are expected to become digital by 2020.

Maine is the last state in the nation that still relies entirely on paper documentation , according to Saufley.

“Moving from a paper-based court system to an electronic one will revolutionize the way we do business,” she said. “Recognizing that broadband access is not yet equally available in all areas of the state, our plans include public kiosks in the courthouses, to make sure that all members of the public benefit from this improvement.”

She said the $17 million system to be paid for with bonds would:

— Allow 24/7 access by litigants from anywhere in the world that is connected to the internet.

— Put interactive court forms online to assist unrepresented litigants to initiate and process their cases.

— Improve access, efficiency and transparency for all involved with the court system.

She thanked lawmakers for passing last session a bill that ensured a home court for cases involving children.

“Prior to passage of this bill many cases involving the same children were split between the state district courts and the county probate courts,” she said. “A child protection case would proceed in the district court, but any adoption, guardianship, or name change involving the same child would have to be handled by the county probate courts.”

Since July, when the bill went into effect, and Feb. 10, 173 adoptions, 50 guardianships, and five name changes, all involving families and children in district court cases that would have required separate case filings in probate courts have been completed, Saufley said.

Saufley is seeking raises for the judicial marshals and court clerks but did not say exactly how big a raise was needed.

“The pay scales of marshals, clerks and others in the judicial branch have not remained competitive either with other law enforcement agencies, or with what the staff can make working other public sector jobs in the private sector,” she said. “We no sooner train new clerks and marshals than we lose them to other employers.”


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