Massachusetts Criminal Case Backlog Trimmed To 4,000, Court Officials Say

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By Colin A. Young
State House News Service

Nearly 4,000 criminal cases that were delayed during the pandemic are still awaiting trial as Massachusetts courts work through a sizable backlog, judiciary officials said.

Trial Court Chief Justice Jeffrey Locke said the volume of criminal cases awaiting trial has been roughly cut in half from a peak of 8,000 that built up while in-person proceedings were paused due to the COVID-19 emergency.

“It’s better than it was,” Locke said of the backlog during a panel discussion following a state-of-the-judiciary address by Kimberly Budd, chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, on Tuesday, December 12.

Court officials shifted many operations to remote forums such as Zoom early in the crisis, but Locke said they found that some proceedings did not fit the live-video model.

“Zoom really was not suitable to a contested trial, and especially to a contested criminal trial. For many evidentiary motions, it was perceived that in-person presence really is essential,” Locke said.

In-person jury trials resumed in April 2021, and since then, about 4,000 of the 8,000 cases have been cleared, Locke said. He called the backlog “significantly reduced” and voiced praise for “the remarkable work done by the chief justices of the departments and by all the judges, and all the supporting court personnel, clerks, court officers, and all those who ensure that our cases can be marked up and heard.”

Court officials have also worked through new cases in the meantime, and Locke said over the past fiscal year, they achieved a “clearance rate” of 104 percent.

“What that means for the public is that we moved more cases out of the court system than came into the court system, and bear in mind that we had, in fiscal year 2023, over 700,000 cases filed,” Locke said. “So we moved out more than that number, and that indicates as well that we were attacking cases that had been pending for extended periods of time.”

Some lawmakers and criminal justice reform advocates have voiced concerns about the backlog of cases, arguing that imposing years-long delays could frustrate affected communities and decrease witness viability.

Officials are also working to overhaul the state’s judiciary with a bevy of new funding approved in recent years.

Then-Governor Charlie Baker last year signed a roughly $165 million bond bill designed to modernize courthouse operations. Thomas Ambrosino, the trial court’s administrator, said that judiciary leaders plan to spend about $30 million of that funding per year.

“This is a five- to six-year implementation plan. We’re only a year and a half in,” he said. “Most of this first year and a half has been spent dealing with infrastructure, because we had such an infrastructure deficit. Our wiring was old, our connections were old, all of our hardware was old.”

Most of the work so far has been on areas that are “behind the scenes, not things that attorneys or our users can really see,” but are nonetheless critical, Ambrosino said. Officials replaced all desktop computers for court employees, installed new cameras, locks, and keyless entry systems, and rewired buildings to improve network connectivity.

Only five of 94 Massachusetts court buildings have wifi currently, according to Ambrosino, who said all will add that capability by the end of 2024.

“Right now, that is a great frustration, not just for attorneys but for jurors as well, that our buildings don’t have wifi connectivity,” he said.

This year’s state-of-the-judiciary remarks and roundtable discussion occurred at a point of major transition for the system. Two of the seven justices on the state Supreme Judicial Court, David Lowy and Elspeth Cypher, plan to leave for other jobs early next year. Locke will soon retire and be succeeded as Trial Court chief justice by Heidi Brieger. And Budd said both Boston Municipal Court chief justice Rob Ronquillo and Reporter of Decisions Brian Redmond are also approaching the exit.

Budd praised the new appointees who recently filled open positions or will soon join the judiciary, and she said to keep up the pace, court officials will need to “create and sustain a vision of what we want to accomplish and execute plans for realizing that vision.”

She outlined four major priorities:  improving technology in courts; making the system “easier to understand and navigate” for users, especially self-represented litigants; reexamining how courts can “respond more effectively to the difficult issues that underlie so many of the cases before us”; and boosting diversity, equity, and inclusion.


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