Three years ago November, there was a brawl outside New Bedford District Court in which five men set upon an 18-year-old and a 19-year-old who had just been ordered to leave the Sixth Street courthouse. That same year, there were some 28 disturbances inside the court building itself and six full-on assaults either in the building or on the grounds.

The district court is just one of four aging and overburdened courthouses in New Bedford that are so outdated their facilities, or lack thereof, pose a danger to public safety, according to many of those who work in the buildings. The district court, superior court, probate and housing courts are all located in small, cramped buildings constructed long before contemporary standards of public safety — especially when it comes to separating defendants from court personnel.

In the November 2019 incident, police said one of the assailants pulled a knife and the others punched and kicked the two teenagers in what police at the time called “suspicious gang activity.” Two men were ultimately arrested and charged.

Local members of the bar say they are worried that the antiquated nature of the city’s court buildings could even result in tragedy.

“I don’t want to wait until someone gets badly hurt — or killed — to say we need to do something,” New Bedford Bar Association president Rick Manning recently told Lawyers Weekly. “We need to do something now.”

One New Bedford court building isn’t even a court building: The Southeastern Housing Court is actually leased office space located in a strip mall next to a Chinese restaurant on Hathaway Road, and the facilities are so inadequate (there are limited holding cells and no ability to segregate juries) that all the housing trials are currently held in Taunton. It’s the same situation for criminal sessions meant for the almost 200-year-old superior court building on County Street in New Bedford. Safety concerns grew so worrisome 10 years or so ago that all the criminal proceedings were transferred to the then-newly built Justice Center in Fall River. Only civil cases now remain on County Street. 

So inadequate is the New Bedford probate court building, located on Pleasant Street, that the majority of probate trials are also now held in Taunton. All these trials in Fall River and Taunton take place 15 and 23 miles respectively from New Bedford and raise issues of equity and access for New Bedford residents who do not drive. The city, at about 40 percent minority, has the largest population of people of color in Bristol County, local bar advocates note.

Nowhere is the situation worse, the advocates say, than at the 1973-built New Bedford District Court where the November 2019 melee took place. That court — the third busiest in the state and the second most over-utilized structure — is so short of courtroom space that two days a week the small claims courts are held in the strip mall courthouse when the housing court is not in session. One of the courtrooms is a converted janitor’s closet in the basement that is used for juvenile trials.

In fact, the New Bedford District Courthouse is so inadequate when it comes to separating judges and court personnel from defendants and prisoners that local lawyers don’t want to publicly describe exactly what the dangers are, lest they give some of the defendants ideas. The district courthouse also has no way of separating combative litigants after their hearings as their paperwork is processed.

“The whole building is too small, too cramped and too overcrowded,” said Manning.

“Every one of these facilities pose safety risks,” said New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, who described the condition of the city’s courthouses as “a tale of neglect” by the state.

So dangerous, in fact, is the situation that some 95 local attorneys and retired judges recently signed a letter asking the state’s trial court to move up a planned construction of a new justice center in New Bedford from some time between 2029 and 2039 to as soon as possible. Mitchell worked with the Bar Association in flagging the state’s attention.

“In the interest of social and regional equity, and the safety of those who use our city’s courthouses, it is imperative that the project move forward now with all deliberate speed,” according to the letter, which was spotlighted in a March 10 editorial in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.

It’s difficult to imagine why one of the wealthiest states in the nation is so far behind in upgrading or replacing its courthouses. Year after year, the state simply has not devoted enough money to renovate, expand or build new courthouses. Trying to trace whose fault it is an exercise in finger-pointing but mostly it’s an exercise in under-funding.

In 2017, the Executive Office of the Trial Court developed a capital master plan aimed at addressing courthouse conditions across Massachusetts. It proposed “phased consolidation of outdated or lower-volume courthouses into regional justice centers.” Under the plan, however, construction in New Bedford is not scheduled to begin until 2029 at the earliest.

Just before the publication of the Lawyers Weekly article, bar association advocates met with John Bello, the court administrator of the Trial Court and Jeffrey Locke, the new chief justice of the same, and they toured the New Bedford District Court building. 

Bello’s bio on the court’ website describes him as having overseen the development of the 20-year Court Master Capital Plan, together with the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management & Maintenance.

The trial court office released a statement to The New Bedford Light in response to its questions about moving up the construction date of the planned New Bedford Justice Center that would replace the four city courts. The 2016 capital master plan was updated in 2019, said the statement, which did not address the specific situation with New Bedford courts but rather talked about the need throughout Massachusetts.

“The capital planning documents underscore the need for $3 billion in capital improvements across the state. Many courthouses are in a state of disrepair and many need targeted repairs,” read the statement. 

And then: “In 2017, more than 65% of courthouses were more than 50 years old. The Trial Court used guiding principles and planning considerations to create a vision and priorities for improvements.” 

Manning said that when Bello and Locke were in New Bedford, they framed the problem for the bar advocates.

“They agree, as their master plan agrees, that our courts need to be fixed. The question is funding,” he said.

Mitchell said he commented to no avail on the Trial’s Court draft plan that does not have New Bedford getting a new justice center for another seven years at the earliest.

New Bedford state Rep. Antonio Cabral said that he has been working on bringing a new court complex to New Bedford for many years. 

At one time, he noted, he had secured $300,000 in a bond authorization for a feasibility study for a New Bedford justice center, but he said the Trial Court had never made it a priority.  

There was a 2018 earmark, good for five years, for $123.5 million for building for Phase 1 of the capital master plan, but New Bedford never rose to the top of the building list. Ahead of New Bedford in terms of priority are three other substandard courts in various communities, including the district court in Quincy which is next on the list.

Manning and Mitchell argue that New Bedford should go ahead of the other communities because unlike in the other municipalities, all four of the city’s court buildings are in disrepair. 

Cabral, however, noted that the Executive Office of the Trial Court cannot spend money faster than the Executive Office of Administration and Finance, will let it. The A & F Office has been under Gov. Charlie Baker’ control the last eight years. It did not respond to The Light’s inquiry on the issue.    

“You need to have the administration and the Administrative Office of the Trial Court to really come together,” Cabral said.

He is happy, he said, to see others joining in the effort to re-evaluate whether the New Bedford Justice Center should be moved up from its place on the capital plan.

“I think we’re going to get a courthouse and it’s going to be downtown,” he said.

“It depends on how we can apply the pressure that needs to be applied.”

But ultimately, the effort depends on the court system itself, Cabral said.

“The Trial Court has to be an advocate for the process or it’s just not going to happen.”

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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