Local law enforcement: Keep Stoughton Court open

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It’s only a “preliminary recommendation,” but a Court Relocation Committee, formed to help the Massachusetts Court System close a reported $21 million budget gap this fiscal year, has proposed relocating a number of district courts across the state, including the shifting of Stoughton District Court’s services to courts in Dedham and Wrentham.

Stoughton District Court

Stoughton District Court has served surrounding towns since 1962. (Jeffrey Pickette photo)

As local law enforcement officials see it, the state may be saving money by closing and relocating various district courts, but the towns and their police departments won’t be.

“Obviously, it’s going to be a financial hit to the Canton Police Department,” CPD Lieutenant Helena Findlen said. Stoughton Police Chief Paul Shastany agreed and said that if the Court Relocation Committee follows through with its plan, it would “devastate” his budget, costing his department upwards of $100,000.

But increased costs are not the only reason Findlen, Shastany, and a chorus of their peers are balking at the proposal to displace the Stoughton court, which serves the communities of Avon, Canton, Sharon, and Stoughton. Overcrowded courts, increased travel time, convenience, and overall safety are among a flurry of additional concerns.

“I think it’s prudent both money-wise and safety-wise … to keep it open,” Shastany said.

Findlen, while praising the overall work of the Dedham District Court, notes that “it’s a pretty packed courthouse on a good day now, never mind adding all of our business.” She is concerned that this could result in a logjam of cases that will take more time to settle. Shastany adds that the same could be the case at the Wrentham court, especially considering it deals with arrests made at Gillette Stadium at the beginning of the week. If cases take more time to be processed, Findlen and Shastany stress that it will keep officers in court longer, instead of patrolling the streets, which could result in less on-duty officers able to respond to calls.

Located at 1288 Central Street, the Stoughton court is only 3.4 miles from the Canton Police Station, according to Google Maps — less than a ten-minute drive — whereas the Dedham court is about 8 miles away (a 15-minute drive) and the Wrentham court is about 15 miles away (a 25-minute drive), which will create a longer commute for officer and litigant alike. Findlen also believes that one of the added benefits of the Stoughton court is its accessibility, with a commuter rail station in Stoughton located less than a mile from the courthouse.

It is speculated that criminal cases will be shifted to the Dedham court and civil cases, like small claims and restraining orders, will be shifted to Wrentham. Splitting Stoughton’s services between two courts is something local attorney Glen Hannington, a former assistant clerk magistrate for the Boston Municipal Court, believes will create confusion and hardship for local citizens.

“It’s going to create havoc,” he said. “It really will.”

According to a July 20 press release issued by the Massachusetts Court System, “the criteria established by the [Court Relocation Committee] to identify potential sites for relocation and consolidation include lease terms and expenses, personnel impact and staffing levels, the condition of facilities, building functions, caseload, geography and transportation issues, as well as access to justice.” The Court System did not respond to an e-mail asking to identify the specific reason Stoughton was part of this list.

Under these “preliminary recommendations,” the building that houses the Stoughton court will still be used, with the Norfolk County Juvenile Court transferring its services from Dedham to Stoughton.

“It doesn’t make sense that they’re going to move Stoughton District Court into another court, yet have [the juvenile court] come into [the Stoughton court building] to take it’s place,” Hannington said. He said he would rather see the Stoughton District Court retain its current services and then set up modular offices on its property to house the juvenile court.

Findlen feels “people are more apt to go into a small, local court house” to deal with a personal issue. She also fears that relocating the Stoughton court to a courthouse further away might discourage victims of domestic violence from seeking a restraining order or other forms of legal protection.

“It’s hard enough to get them to the point where they seek help,” Findlen said. “Why are we going to make it more difficult for them to follow through?”

Open since 1962, the Stoughton court remains in limbo, waiting for its final verdict.

“There’s a lot of compelling arguments to keep it open,” Hannington said.

“With the economic times, we’ve been forced to adapt to a lot of stuff, and I think the Canton Police, in my humble opinion, will do the best job that we always do,” Findlen added. “We’ll just adapt and overcome. But, ideally, to provide the best police services to our community and to the business owners within it and our residents, Stoughton court needs to stay open.”

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avatar Posted by on Sep 2 2010. Filed under News, Town Government.
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