By Seth Daniel
A new capital needs draft master plan produced and released last week by the state Trial Courts has, right off the bat, pegged the Charlestown District Court for possible closure, consolidating the courthouse’s operations in a move to the Edward Brooke Courthouse near North Station.
“I am going to come out against any plan to close the Charlestown Courthouse,” said State Sen. Sal DiDomenico this week. “I am going to adamantly oppose the closure, consolidation or relocation of the building. I will not support it when it come down to a vote of the Legislature…I am totally opposed. That court has become part of the fabric of Charlestown. It’s not just a building, but a critical component for jobs and resident services. I will oppose and fight against closure or consolidation of that court.”
State Rep. Dan Ryan said he is against the measure too, though he is willing to discuss a relocation within the Town to a newer, more modern building. He said the plan calls for a study, and a plan to form over a five-year period.
“I’m adamantly opposed to closing the courthouse, but I’m willing to have the discussion over the next couple of years and see something more concrete and comprehensive,” he said. “If there were a way to maintain the level of services we experience in Charlestown in a new building in the neighborhood, I would entertain it, but it would have to weigh heavily in Charlestown’s favor.”
The report, while just a draft and a plan that stretches out several years, does list the Charlestown Court as one of the first buildings to be included in a $155 million feasibility study beginning in the next budget cycle – if approved. The report studied the numbers at the Court, showing just over 3,000 cases filed there in the most recent year, one of the smallest in the system of 100 courthouses. It also listed the court as having one of the most expensive costs per filing in the entire state system, at about $650 per filing.
Other courts within that study include the Suffolk County Superior Court high-rise, and the South Middlesex Courthouse, both much larger courts.
The report came from Trial Court Administrator Harry Spence and Chief Justice Paula Carey, who set out to study the aging courthouses. Both said they partnered with the state’s Division of Capital Asset and Management (DCAMM) to look at all the courthouses across the state so that they can be modernized to ensure that the delivery of justice is not threatened with disruption and failure due to “outmoded” building systems.
The document produced is a draft master plan for the renovation, closure, consolidation and new construction of courthouses across the state. It is, at best, they said, a wish list, but also a document that can serve as a blueprint for updating the state’s justice needs.
“This draft plan is first and foremost a statement of need to address the wide disparity of courthouse conditions across the Commonwealth,” read the executive summary signed by Spence and Carey. “The implementation framework is a long-term roadmap phased over 20-plus years but includes a near-term request proposing $500 million of investment within the next five years in locations with documented critical need. Elements of the plan beyond Phase 1A will be revisited and reevaluated, given the pace of change in court operations due to technology and other enhancements.”
A key part of starting the plan is to study the lower volume courthouses first in a Phase 1A, which features Charlestown prominently. The report indicates most low volume courthouses can be relocated or consolidated within the same community, but that isn’t the case with the Charlestown court.
“The plan currently proposes phased consolidation of outdated or lower volume courthouses into Regional Justice Centers,” read the report. “Fortunately, most of the state’s outmoded courthouses can be updated or replaced through consolidation within the same community, ensuring continued ease of access for litigants, lawyers, jurors, staff and the public. The role of the courthouse as an important anchor for civic and economic life in a community will not only be preserved, but enhanced. Justice will be woven into the fabric of community.”
The major plan considered in the draft report has the Charlestown Court potentially relocating to the Edward Brooke Courthouse near North Station/Haymarket.
The report indicates that such a move would help around 1,000 people, but would likely be negative for 1,900 people. It contemplated a 12 minute bus ride to the facility from Charlestown.
There are no options in the report for keeping the courthouse in Charlestown.
Ryan said City Square has historically been a seat of government going back to the 1600s.
Beyond the historical significance, he said the court has been a leader in recovery efforts for people trying to conquer and opiate addiction – that coming through the successful Drug Court initiative there. Some 15 people have graduated from the demanding program since it started a few years ago, and that has been due to the fact that the court is close by and accessible.
“You’re not going to get them to go down to the Brooke Courthouse all the time, whether it’s the advocates or the participants,” he said. “It’s a mile away and that’s another barrier.”
Said DiDomenico, “That court changes lives. If you take it away from them, you’re creating more problems for them and the neighborhood.”
The courthouse has been pegged for closure before, but never has there been a concrete plan for that presented by the Trial Court.
Phase 1A is planned to last five years, and public comments are being taken on the plan right now until May 26. To make a comment via e-mail, do so at [email protected].