Judicial Branch to close Windham courthouse, 3 juvenile courts

The Windham Judicial District courthouse on Valley Street in Willimantic

Connecticut Judicial Branch

The Windham Judicial District courthouse on Valley Street in the Willimantic section of Windham

The Judicial Branch announced Tuesday it would close the Windham courthouse, juvenile courts in Danbury, Stamford and Torrington, and two urban lock-up facilities as part of a larger reorganization to deal with a $77 million budget cut in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The court facilities will close by Dec. 31 and the lockups by June 30.

Court officials, who already have ordered 239 layoffs and eliminated 61 temporary positions, said about 200 vacant posts would be frozen to help stabilize finances, which would bring the total jobs eliminated since mid-April to 500.

And Judge Patrick L. Carroll III, the chief court administrator, also announced plans to redistribute cases to four other courts.

“It is unfortunate that these courthouse closings must occur,” Carroll wrote in a statement. “They will be disruptive and will impact many people.”

The chief court administrator added that these changes were not driven “by savings generated by closing the facilities. Rather, these closings are required because of the loss of staff.”

Branch officials have warned of likely staffing cuts since February, when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the legislature first began trying to solve a shortfall in 2016-17 finances that grew to about $960 million, or 5 percent of annual operating costs.

Part of that solution was to cut $77 million — or 13.3 percent — from the $577 million budget that had been approved for the Judicial Branch for 2016-17 about 12 months ago.

Technically, the legislature and governor cut $49 million from the original branch budget. But they also directed the branch to cover $6 million in probate court costs, and established omnibus savings targets for the entire budget that will drain another $22.4 million from branch resources.

The branch’s revised 2016-17 budget still is about $35 million, or 6.6 percent higher than it was in 2010-11, just before the Malloy administration began.

Carroll warned legislators in February that the severe Judicial Branch cuts under consideration could “compromise access to justice for our citizens.” The chief court administrator predicted this would  affect virtually all aspects of court operations, weakening security, anti-recidivism and victim support programs and even the legal research services on which judges rely.

Judge Patrick L. Carroll III, chief court administrator

Connecticut Judicial Branch

Judge Patrick L. Carroll III, chief court administrator

Cases will be redirected to several courthouses under the new organizational plan unveiled Tuesday, including:

  • Juvenile matters at Danbury will be reassigned to Bridgeport and Waterbury;
  • Juvenile matters at Torrington will be reassigned to Waterbury;
  • Juvenile matters at Stamford will be reassigned to Bridgeport;
  • And all cases heard in Windham will be reassigned to the Putnam courthouse.

“We are doing the best that we can to position the Judicial Branch so that we can continue to meet the needs of the people we serve despite significantly fewer resources,” Carroll said.

Court officials also decided to close 24-hour lockup facilities within the courthouses at 101 Lafayette St. in Hartford and 1 Union Ave. in New Haven. These facilities have been staffed by judicial marshals, but marshals represent 101 of the 239 layoffs ordered to date.

In most cities and towns, local police departments are responsible for housing detained individuals before their first court appearance.

Court officials said that because of the limited number of marshals the branch can employ, those on staff are needed to ensure security for the public, jurors, attorneys and judges, and cannot be spared to staff 24-hour lockups.

“There is already a serious shortage of judicial marshals throughout the state,” Carroll told the legislature’s Appropriations Committee in February. “We need 840 Marshals, but based on attrition and other issues that make staff unavailable … we typically have a daily roster of about 644.”

The leader of the union representing court marshals said Tuesday that “significant concerns” remain about the safety of Connecticut’s courthouses.

“The judicial marshals understand that the state’s budgetary situation is dire and there is a need for cost savings, but we have significant concerns about how today’s reorganization plan and last month’s layoff of 101 Judicial Marshals and 23 Judicial Security Officers will impact public safety,” said Joe Gaetano, president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 731. “The closing of courthouses does not mean caseloads will be reduced; it means more business will be consolidated in fewer buildings. At the same time, the judicial marshals, who were already understaffed, are being further reduced. Our courthouses, by the nature of the work that is done there, are filled every day with individuals in conflict and crisis, and the presence of judicial marshals in the hallways and courtrooms keeps those public places safe for all.”

“Reducing citizen access to the judicial system by closing courthouses harms everyone, especially the poor,” the Connecticut Bar Association added Tuesday. The association “believes that access to the courts is a fundamental right, critical to preserving the rule of law. We will continue our ongoing dialogue with lawmakers to determine whether there is a better way to achieve necessary costs savings, reverse these decisions, and keep open as many courthouses as possible.”

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