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Testimony of Judge William J. Lavery
Chief Court Administrator
Appropriations Committee

February 20, 2007

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Good afternoon Senator Harp, Representative Merrill and members of the Appropriations Committee. My name is William J. Lavery and I am the Chief Court Administrator. I come before you today to comment on the Governor’s budget recommendations for the Judicial Branch for the upcoming biennium and, most importantly, to ask for your assistance in addressing critical staffing problems that threaten our ability to meet the Judicial Branch’s statutory and constitutional responsibilities.

Let me begin by saying that I fully appreciate the daunting task that Governor Rell and Secretary Genuario faced in putting together a balanced budget proposal for the next biennium and that I also recognize that the Judicial Branch represents only a small fraction of the state’s overall budget. I am also cognizant of the fact that while the Judicial Branch is a co-equal branch of government, we are fully dependent on the Executive and Legislative Branches for the funding needed to run the Branch. It is with that partnership and interdependence in mind that I will be asking for your help in significantly bolstering funding for security and staffing in the courts.

The current biennium has been a very difficult one for the Branch. A structural problem in our Personal Services account has left us chronically short of funds to support existing staff, let alone replace staff that leave the Branch or bolster areas that demand additional resources.

In both years of the current biennium, we have had to work with the Office of Policy and Management to take extraordinary measures to release, transfer and carry forward an assortment of funds to make up for this structural shortfall. The Governor’s recommended budget appears to alleviate much of the basic structural problem.

However, the recommended budget does not address the need to add staff to reduce the chronic shortages that plague the courts. These deficiencies are reaching crisis proportions in many areas. Two weeks ago in Hartford, 40 Part A criminal cases, the most serious criminal matters before the courts, had to be rescheduled because there were not enough Judicial Marshals to staff the courtrooms.

Staffing levels for core court functions have been stagnant for ten years and in the case of Judicial Marshals, there are actually 100 fewer Marshals than there were in 2000 when the Branch took over courthouse security from the now-defunct County Sheriffs. I welcome the opportunity to assist the Executive and Legislative Branches in addressing important state policy initiatives such as prison overcrowding and juvenile justice reform. However, we cannot continue to accept resources for these functions while failing to protect the core functions of the courts.

My number one budget priority for the Judicial Branch for the upcoming biennium is to increase staffing for security and for the courts. To that end, I must bring to the Committee’s attention a budget option that we submitted to OPM for the upcoming biennium. The option would provide funding and positions for 100 new Judicial Marshals and 77 additional court staff, including additional Court Interpreters and clerical staff for clerk’s offices at a cost of $7.5 million.

Judicial Marshals

The courts are a bedrock institution of our society. For justice to be served, everyone coming to court - litigants, attorneys, staff, jurors, witnesses and the public in general – must be safe and secure, whether in court for a simple traffic matter or as a participant in a serious criminal case.

Our goal is to provide the safest and most secure setting possible, beginning with the design and layout of our newest court facilities and including modern technology to screen and monitor our buildings. Nevertheless, the fundamental element in our security plan is a well-trained and adequately staffed Judicial Marshal force.

Marshals have the responsibility for securing courthouses, courtrooms and courthouse lock-ups (including two 24-hour facilities), transporting prisoners, and providing security at probation and support enforcement offices.

An OPM study that was conducted several years ago determined that an appropriate level of Marshal staffing was 1080. This number has never been achieved. Our recent staffing analyses indicate that we require a minimum of 920 Marshals statewide to effectively secure our facilities. Today we have fewer than 800 Marshals. In truth, the typical number of marshals available for work on a given day is actually below 700 because of staff that are out-of-work on worker’s compensation or out on approved sick and vacation leave.

Due to the staff shortages, large numbers of courtrooms operate without Marshals, jeopardizing the safety of the public, including witnesses, victims and jurors. The shortages also mean that the public regularly encounters delays in entering courthouses, and increased risk to families, victims, and witnesses due to delays in prisoner transport. As I noted earlier, unprecedented postponements of criminal matters have been necessary due to an insufficient number of Marshals. Probation offices often have no Marshal coverage because of the lack of staff.

The highest level of staff attrition in the Judicial Branch occurs in the Marshal ranks. Many in the marshal service leave to take positions in state and local law enforcement agencies and many take promotions to more lucrative positions within the Branch such as juvenile and adult probation officers. Based on attrition, at least two training classes of new Marshals are required each year to maintain current staffing levels. At least four classes per year are needed to make any headway toward our staffing goal of 920.

The Branch’s FY07 budget, as well as the recommended FY08 budget, only accommodate two classes per year, and even those classes must be scheduled nine months apart due to a lack of funding.

The shortage of Marshals cannot continue. It jeopardizes everyone’s safety and is a clear and present danger. I am respectfully requesting that the Committee review the budget option that I have attached to this testimony and provide the positions and funding for 100 additional judicial marshals in FY08.

Court Interpreters

Coming into court can be intimidating and confusing for anyone. For those persons who do not speak English or have limited English proficiency, the process is far more daunting. Court Interpreters play a vital role in the court process for these individuals, and should be available for anyone coming into court and needing language assistance.

Unfortunately, there is a severe shortage of trained Court Interpreters at a time when demand for the service has increased dramatically. There has been a 350 percent increase in requests for court-related interpretation services since 2000, but at the same time, the number of available full-time court interpreters has actually decreased, from 34 in 2000 to 25 in 2006. Reliance on Temporary Court Interpreters has grown as well, and we now employ approximately 35 Temporary Court Interpreters every week. To put that into perspective, we operate 46 courthouses every day, plus an additional 25 non-court locations such as support enforcement and probation offices. The total number of full-time and temporary Court Interpreters statewide is only 60.

Unavailability of sufficient interpreter services negatively affects victims, families, witnesses, and parties causing additional time and multiple appearances in court and reliance on informal interpretation through family members and friends, which can often be erroneous or incomplete. As well, this unavailability results in the Branch’s not meeting federal standards, which could jeopardize grant funding to the state.

To begin to rectify this problem, we need to increase the number of Court Interpreters as soon as possible. I would respectfully ask the Committee to add 15 new positions and associated funding to the Branch’s FY08 budget for this purpose.

Staff shortages in clerk’s offices

Clerk’s offices are the lifeblood of the court system, receiving papers, assisting the public, preparing court documents and entering and maintaining data on all of the cases that come before the court. Additionally, other judicial divisions (such as probation) and other agencies (including DMV, the State Police, DOC, Mental Health and Addiction Services, DCF, and the State’s Attorneys and Public Defenders, among others) are totally dependent on the timely availability of accurate data from clerks’ offices.

Unfortunately staffing in these offices has suffered statewide due to a lack of funding, and there are at least 70 essential vacancies that cannot be filled. This causes delays in the entry of data, leading to increased risk to victims of domestic violence, delays in processing of seized property, denial or approval of employment based on potentially inaccurate data, jeopardized public safety, longer waits on processing of executions on judgments in small claims and civil courts, delays in obtaining copies of documents like certificates of dissolution, and delays in providing necessary services and placements for juvenile offenders.

Existing staff simply cannot keep up with the current workload. I have authorized paid overtime in the evenings and on weekends to try to catch up on the backload in clerk’s offices but this is an insufficient and inefficient stop-gap measure at best. We need additional full-time staff as soon as possible.

The situation has reached a point where I have no choice but to curtail the hours that clerk’s offices are open to the public as a means to catch-up. If additional positions and funding cannot be provided, I have directed my staff to begin to identify court locations that can be closed and consolidated to obtain staffing efficiencies in the next fiscal year. This will undoubtedly inconvenience the public, as well as local authorities, staff and the bar, but I see no other practical choice.

Temporary staff pay increases

I mentioned earlier in my testimony that the Branch relies on a cadre of Temporary Court Interpreters to supplement full-time staff. The use of temporary staff is a widespread practice throughout the Branch, and in the courts include the following positions in addition to the Interpreters: Temporary Assistant Clerks, Temporary Court Monitors and Temporary Paralegals. In Juvenile Detention there is a high reliance on Temporary Juvenile Detention Officers, Temporary Juvenile Detention Transportation Officers and Temporary Food Service Coordinators. In total, we will spend about $8.7 million in FY07 on temporary staff throughout the Branch.

All of these temporary positions pay significantly less than their full–time counterparts, between 43 percent and 80 percent of the current rate for full-time staff, depending on the position. Overall, the rates of pay for these employees, people who are vital to the daily operation of the Branch, have not been increased for many years.

We submitted a budget option for the upcoming biennium, which is not included in the recommended budget, that would increase the rates of pay for these employees to a uniform 80 percent of their full-time counterparts, at a cost of about $2.5 million.

This pay increase is long overdue, and would help us attract and retain needed staff, especially in high cost areas such as Fairfield County. I have attached a copy of our proposal to my written testimony and I would ask the committee to give consideration to this important measure.

Position Reductions

The Governor’s Recommended Budget contains a troubling proposal with respect to the position count in the Judicial Branch. The proposed budget eliminates 130 of the Branch’s existing 4226 positions. There are no budgetary savings associated with this reduction, and I cannot offer a rationale as to why it is being proposed.

In fact, the reduction is contradictory to the agreement reached between the Executive and Judicial Branches following the 2003 Early Retirement Incentive Program (ERIP). This agreement recognized that as a co-equal branch of government, the Judicial Branch must have the flexibility to address staff needs that may arise.

Nevertheless, we recognize the need to work with the Executive and Legislative Branches and have remained committed to doing what we can to live within budgetary constraints.

The Branch presently carries between 225-250 vacancies, representing about 5 percent of our total position count. This number is two-thirds greater than it was in 2003 prior to the ERIP. The current vacancy rate is a reflection of our inability to meet the critical need for additional staff that I have outlined above.

It is my hope that the Committee will recognize that the proposed reduction in positions is unwarranted and will not save any funds, and take action to restore the positions to the Branch.

Mental health and educational services for court-involved youth

Another important budget request that we submitted, but that was not recommended, concerns enhanced mental health and educational services for juveniles.

Presently, the court can order various assessments for youth that come before the court, but judicial staff struggle to interpret the clinical evaluations and recommendations that are received. A portion of our request would fund the creation of a new Clinical Coordinator position that would help us evaluate children’s mental health needs more efficiently, with quicker referrals to appropriate services and a reduction in the need for expensive and time-consuming evaluations at facilities such as the over-burdened Riverview Hospital.

Also, many juveniles that come in contact with the court have significant learning disabilities and major gaps in their educational experience, which leave them disconnected from their local school system. Behavior problems in school are often the primary reason juveniles are referred to court.

For example, truancy accounts for 50 percent of all Families with Service Needs referrals, and a staggering 89 percent of court-involved 16- and 17-year- olds have been expelled or suspended from school. Our proposal is to utilize Educational Advocates to protect the educational rights of individual children and work with parents, probation officers and the courts to ensure that appropriate testing and services are available to children in the juvenile courts.

This is an important and worthwhile investment in children at a cost of 11 positions and $1.8 million. If successful, it will avoid far greater future costs to the state.

In summary, although the Governor’s Recommended Budget for the Judicial Branch essentially provides funding for the status quo, it does not recognize that in the case of the Branch, the status quo is untenable. I cannot emphasize strongly enough that the integrity of the courts is in jeopardy because of a lack of staff. We are at a crisis stage, and with a new biennium before us, we must act to insure that courts can continue to meet their constitutional and statutory responsibilities. The first and most necessary step is to provide sufficient funding to add staff to secure and operate our courts.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you about these issues and I would be pleased to answer any questions that you may have.


 

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