Our new governor, Edward Miner “Ned” Lamont Jr., inherits a challenging financial environment. Years of governmental mismanagement, failure to make legally mandated pension contributions, stagnant economic growth and tax revenues have all contributed to this miasma. While there is no quick fix for this problem, one partial solution could be to re-examine how our state government operates to determine whether we can run it more efficiently and at less cost. That analysis may well start with our judicial system.
Few observers of our court system would assert that it is a model of efficiency. In many places, there are excessive personnel to perform court functions. There are also unnecessary physical locations for a state of our size. Many courts are underutilized during the course of the day. These factors combine to create a system that costs more than it should and is more than we can afford.
How can these issues be addressed in a meaningful way? Several possibilities exist. First, re-evaluate the need for all of our courthouses. The state currently operates 23 Geographical Area courthouses. They are expensive to operate from a facility and personnel basis. Are they all needed? For example, is there a compelling need to operate G.A. courthouses in places like Bristol and Enfield? These are locations with small dockets and operate on essentially a part-time basis. Could not these dockets be respectively folded into the Torrington/New Britain and Hartford/Rockville G.A.’s?
Further, does there need to be a G.A. courthouse in both Derby and Milford? Milford currently serves only two towns, Milford and West Haven, neither of which are population centers. No other G.A. in the state covers only two towns. There is no apparent reason to operate G.A. courts in both of those locations. Since there is nothing legally sacrosanct about which court handles cases from a particular town, a restructuring of the G.A.s should be considered.
Also, the number of new criminal cases in the G.A.s has shrunk from 139,428 in fiscal year 1994-1995 to 84,899 in fiscal year 2017-2018. The number of new motor vehicle cases in the G.A.s has shrunk from 221,183 to 144,936 in the same period. Given these figures, should the number of facilities and staff remain the same?
Second, we should consider the expanded utilization of part-time personnel in our court system with either no or substantially reduced benefits, particularly with regard to prosecutors and public defenders. Historically, the system utilized these type of positions by employing numerous private practitioners. The benefits of that arrangement are obvious. The state is able to hire competent, experienced counsel to assist with dockets while not bearing the costs of full-time salaries and benefits for these individuals. Further, the schedule of these attorneys can be adjusted to meet the docket needs of each courthouse. In these times of fiscal duress, where personnel are not needed the taxpayers should not be paying for them. Simply put, the issue of court structure warrants examination by a statewide commission whose charge would be to create a more efficient and less costly operation to better serve the citizens of our state.
Connecticut’s fiscal problems can be solved. There is no reason a state with our strong per capita income should be struggling to meet its financial responsibilities. To do so, we must put our state expenditures in far better order. Our judicial system would be a good place to start.