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Problems at courthouse affect efficiency of staff

Date: 9/19/2013

By G. Michael Dobbs

SPRINGFIELD – The Hampden County Courthouse, has not been able to keep up with the demands of its use, Laura Gentile, clerk of Courts, said.

Gentile is supporting the efforts of state Rep. Sean Curran in asking the Legislature to approve a feasibility study that would determine if the county should get a new court building.

“It’s that simple; we’ve outgrown the building,” she told Reminder Publications.

Gentile said the building was completed in 1976 and its design affects the efficiency of those who work in the court system. She said the building’s deficiencies doesn’t help the fact that there has been a hiring freeze imposed since 2006 and that her office has seen noticeable reductions in staff.

“We hear jurors and litigants complain all the time about the design of the place,” she said.

Walking around the courthouse, Gentile pointed out a number of problems areas. There is only one security entrance used by anyone working or visiting the courthouse, she noted, something that can result in long lines winding around the building.

There are only three public elevators that are used by attorneys, potential jurors and litigants. Besides the fact the elevators are too small and break down often, Gentile said that attorneys must be careful not to speak about any case, as they do not want to prejudice any juror or potential juror in the elevator with them.

She explained the security staff must often bring opposing sides in criminal trials – the families of the defendants and victims – separately down the elevators after a verdict has been read.

“The function of the building is inadequate,” she said.

Gentile then noted that several of the courtrooms are too small for the process of selecting a jury. Sixty-five people from the jury pool are called down for selection, but there are only seats for 45 to 50 jurors. The others must stand or sit in the jury box, only to be moved to make way for those chosen to serve on that jury.

“It’s like musical chairs,” she said.

Although there are rooms designated as conference rooms in the lobby of several of the courtrooms that can be used by attorneys to consult with a client, Gentile said that only one is actually still used as a conference room, with the others now used for storage.

Looking at the lock-up, she said there are too few cells for the number of defendants who come through the courthouse. The prisoners come out of lock-up and into the court rooms through the same hallway used by the judges and jurors. Gentile said there have been some problems associated with that practice.

Evidence used in cases is stored in what she feels is an “insecure area” in the basement of the building and Gentile said a day’s notice is required to bring items up from the room.

There is a parking garage in the courthouse, which is not large enough for the needs of the staff or jurors. Jurors frequently park in the near-by garage under Interstate 91 and Gentile said many jurors have asked court officers to accompany them to their cars because they don’t feel safe in the garage.

Court employees must pay between $65 to $75 a month for downtown parking space, which Gentile said was a considerable amount for many of the staffers.

Pointing to a ceiling air vent, Gentile called attention to the black mold on the white ceiling tile around the vent. She said the building is sealed and doesn’t have a single window that opens. The heating and air conditioning system doesn’t work properly, which she added, is no fault of the maintenance crew. She said that one part of the building could be cool while the other would be “brutally hot.”

Although Gentile characterizes herself as not a “political person,” she believes that politics has played a role in addressing the court’s needs.

“I think that historically everyone in Western Massachusetts thinks we dangle from the cliff. I don’t know if the Legislature has taken a long, hard look at the number of cases we have out here,” she said.