Thursday, December 5, 2013
BY MAL LEARY
AUGUSTA -- Maine Chief Justice Leigh Saufley is asking Gov. Paul LePage and the Legislature to bolster court security and start a multi-year process to develop filing court papers electronically.
That would mean at least an $8.2 million increase in the next two-year budget.
"Court room security has to be our top priority," Saufley said in an interview. "The reality for safety is you need people. You simply must have the right people in the right place to assure there are no guns brought into the courthouse."
She said budget increases over the last few years have increased security so that about half the courts have adequate coverage. She said the 63 positions in the court marshal's office would be bolstered by 35 additional marshals and five additional sergeants under her proposal.
"The marshals are finding that people still forget and have weapons in their pockets," Saufley said. "On a not-irregular basis we have people who remember not to bring a gun in, but have ammunition in their pockets."
She said the marshals continue to find knives on people coming to court and she is amazed at the number of people caught trying to bring illegal substances into the courts.
"For many people that are trying to protect themselves from violence, they have to come to the courthouse to keep the orders in place," Saufley said. "If they have to come to the courthouse, we have to keep them safe."
The security issue has long had the support of lawmakers on the Legislature's Judiciary Committee. Sen. David Hastings, R-Fryeburg, the co-chairman of the panel, said court security is a major concern that needs to be addressed.
"I know it is expensive, but darn it all, the first time we have an incident where someone does brings a gun into a courtroom and actually discharges it, we will wish we had done this years before," he said.
Hastings said lawmakers have been adding security funding in bits and pieces over the last few years, but said it is time to provide security screening at every court. Rep. Charles Priest, D-Brunswick, is the lead Democrat on the committee and a former co-chairman of the panel.
"The judiciary committee has long advocated complete 100 percent coverage," he said. "If you look at what has happened in other states, where they have been people that have brought weapons into the courtroom and actually used them, we don't want that to happen in Maine."
Saufley recognizes her request for an additional $4.9 million for security over two years will have to compete with a lot of other spending needs.
Her second major initiative is to begin a five or more year process to implement electronic filing and document management for all of the courts.
"We think that a roll out of electronic filing in Maine over a period of about five years will cost between $10 and $15 million and then will pay for itself," Saufley said.
She said the budget requests $3.25 million over the two years for an electronic document management system that would provide a foundation on which to build an electronic filing system.
"I think that electronic filing is inevitable," Hastings said. "I know it has a huge price tag on its face, but imagine what it would be like if the DHHS was processing just paper claims. We have to do this and the sooner the better."
Priest said the courts are facing a serious storage problem if they continue to generate the huge amount of paper records that track court activities. He expects moving to electronic records will reduce storage costs and improve usability of the records.
"Most states are looking into this or are already implementing it," he said.
The court request also has money to start paying the additional debt service for new courts being built in Augusta and Machias. The total general fund baseline request to keep the courts operating at current levels and staffing for the two year budget is about $104.9 million.
LePage has not decided what he will recommend to the Legislature, which will spend several months in early 2013 deliberating this and all the other budget requests.