Chief justice pushes safety

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AUGUSTA (AP) – Screening entrances just 5 percent of the time, officials discovered 27 guns or bullet clips and stopped more than 5,000 knives at courthouse doors in Maine last year, according to Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley.

Saufley told lawmakers in her State of the Judiciary address Tuesday that courthouse security must be treated as a top priority. Saufley offered three funding options.

She said entry screening at the state’s 40 court facilities could be fully funded for $3.7 million and that halfway incremental coverage improvements could be made for $1.8 million a year.

“Even that would be a huge step forward,” Saufley said.

A third option targeting “high conflict dockets” with partial coverage could cost just over $1 million, the chief justice said.

“You have taken steps to improve safety through criminalizing the act of bringing a gun into a courthouse and through finding a small amount of funds to allow us to hire temporary staff to help with security,” Saufley said.

“I implore you, help us take the next step to make our courthouses safe,” she added.

Saufley’s message, while not brand new, struck a responsive chord.

“I hate to say it, but the courtrooms in Maine are one tragedy away unless the state takes a serious look at improving security in all court facilities around the state,” Sen. Barry Hobbins, the Saco Democrat who serves as co-chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.

“The time is now – we need to take a proactive stance – and avoid the need to be reactive because we were too late in taking action,” Hobbins said.

Gov. John Baldacci said he wanted to talk more with Saufley.

“We need to explore these options,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Carol Weston, R-Montville, said the plea by the chief justice “demonstrates the need for better priorities in how taxpayer dollars are spent.”

Saufley said all court facilities have equipment to screen for weapons at entrances and there are sufficient security staff to provide marshals in active courtrooms.

She said Maine was one of a few states without full weapons screening and called Maine’s level “sporadic, unpredictable and woefully inadequate.”

General Fund appropriations for the judiciary rose from $51.8 million in 2004 to $54.8 million in 2006 and are projected to grow to $65.2 million in 2009, according to the Baldacci administration.

Factoring in revenue collected by the court system in fines and fees, Saufley said the net cost to state government in 2006 was $13 million.

AP-ES-01-30-07 1429EST

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