Revenue produced by the courts is expected to increase to $38 million.

AUGUSTA (AP) – Maine’s courts have responded to budget cuts with innovations to economize and deliver services more efficiently, but they still face challenges, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley told the Legislature Tuesday.

Maine’s courts have not undergone such fundamental changes since 1966, when the District Court system was completed, Saufley said in her annual State of the Judiciary address to a joint House-Senate session.

“Maine’s courts are doing an extraordinary job with the limited resources available, and we are constantly looking for ways to do better,” Saufley told lawmakers.

The Maine court system’s budget was reduced to help the state balance the budget, yet revenues collected by the Judicial Branch are projected to increase by nearly $6 million to $38 million during this fiscal year.

Still, about $30 million of the total will go to the state’s general fund and not to the courts, Saufley said.

In response to budget constraints, the courts have established a system to flag cases that must receive priority attention, and are establishing case-completion standards and other measures to make sure dockets are administered efficiently, Saufley said.

With those changes, the public can expect court hearings to be conducted when they are scheduled and priority cases to receive the attention they deserve. Also, continuances “will be kept to an absolute minimum,” and cases will be decided “in a timely manner,” the chief justice said.

Saufley also announced a reorganization of the courts’ administrative office without adding new positions.

The courts have made improvements on earlier innovations, including adult drug courts, where offenders who stay drug-free are given an opportunity to return to their jobs, compensate the victims of their crimes, return to their families and avoid prison.

Of the 354 people accepted into the program in the past two years, 107 have “graduated” and 129 are now active, said Saufley.

A program to address domestic violence by coordinating civil and criminal cases and having community service providers work with the court system will expand from York and Cumberland counties Kennebec and Somerset counties, she said.

Saufley also reported success in Maine’s youth courts, citing low recidivism rates especially in the Lewiston-Auburn area.

Listing challenges ahead, Saufley said her top priority to improving security in the courthouses. The courts have screening devices to stop weapons at the door, but can’t afford to pay staff for the equipment.

The courts also need to provide families drawn into the system with better support, she said. With child-related cases now comprising half of the District Courts’ time, families are waiting too long for their day in court “and when they arrive, they find overloaded case management officers and crowded judicial dockets,” Saufley said.

Other goals include expansion of jail diversion programs prison and improvements in meeting needs of the business community.

“Currently, small claims cases and collection proceedings must take a back seat to the urgent priorities you have helped us establish,” Saufley said.



On the Net:

Maine Judicial Branch, speech text: http://www.courts.state.me.us/news/index.html

AP-ES-01-27-04 1147EST



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