DA’s office: Court case backlog in Mass not an issue in Franklin, Hampshire counties

The Franklin County Justice Center in Greenfield.

The Franklin County Justice Center in Greenfield. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Hampshire County Courthouse in Northampton.

Hampshire County Courthouse in Northampton. FILE PHOTO

The Northwestern District Attorney’s Office at 56 Bank Row in Greenfield.

The Northwestern District Attorney’s Office at 56 Bank Row in Greenfield. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ


Staff Writer

Published: 12-22-2023 5:01 PM

The backlog plaguing courthouses across much of the state seems to have spared Franklin and Hampshire counties, where the Northwestern district attorney’s office put many cases to bed while in-person jury trials were suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The State House News Service recently reported that the 8,000 criminal cases delayed during the public health crisis have been whittled down by half as the courts continue to work to make up for lost time. But in Hampshire and Franklin counties, Assistant District Attorney Steven Gagne said court backlog is a significantly lesser issue for his office and that is, perhaps ironically, also due to the period when the world went into lockdown.

“We resolved a boatload of cases in the early days of the pandemic. People in custody wanted to get out, and that ignited a pretty serious round of plea discussions,” he said this week, adding that reduced human activity statewide resulted in police officers arresting fewer people during the coronavirus emergency. “Our caseload probably decreased during the pandemic.”

Gagne explained that most cases end in plea bargains as a way to resolve matters quickly and avoid costly and traumatizing trials.

“There’s always a stack of cases that are sort of elbowing each other out of the way for priority,” he said, adding that they do not pose a hindrance for the DA’s office. “I would say we have a normal level of backlog. I’d say … we’re pretty much back to business as usual.”

The online video conferencing platform Zoom was used for some court proceedings, but it was generally deemed unsuitable for trials.

“Zoom really was not suitable to a contested trial and especially to a contested criminal trial. For many evidentiary motions, it was perceived that in-person presence really is essential,” said Trial Court Chief Justice Jeffrey Locke in a recent State House News Service article.

According to the News Service, former Gov. Charlie Baker last year signed a roughly $165 million bond bill designed to modernize courthouse operations. Thomas Ambrosino, the trial court’s administrator, said earlier this month that judiciary leaders plan to spend about $30 million of that funding per year.

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“This is a five- to six-year implementation plan. We’re only a year and a half in,” said Ambrosino. “Most of this first year and a half has been spent dealing with infrastructure, because we had such an infrastructure deficit. Our wiring was old, our connections were old, all of our hardware was old.”

Most of the work so far has been on areas that are “behind the scenes, not things that attorneys or our users can really see,” but are nonetheless critical, Ambrosino said. Officials replaced all desktop computers for court employees; installed new cameras, locks and keyless entry systems; and rewired buildings to improve network connectivity.

Only five of 94 Massachusetts court buildings have wifi currently, according to Ambrosino, who said all will add that capability by the end of 2024.

“Right now, that is a great frustration,” he said, “not just for attorneys but for jurors as well, that our buildings don’t have wifi connectivity.”

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@recorder.com or 413-930-4120. Reporting by the State House News Service was used for this article.