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SALEM — Cases from five communities — Salem, Beverly, Danvers, Middleton and Manchester — fill the docket at Salem District Court. Sessions typically run late into the afternoon, sometimes continuing after the rest of the courthouse closes.
Just two miles away, the Peabody District Court serves just two communities, Peabody and Lynnfield, and handles a few jury trials sent from Gloucester. It's not unusual for Peabody's main session to have completed its work by lunchtime.
The disparity between the two courthouses has led the area's administrative judge, Robert Brennan, to order Salem District Court to start sending all of its jury trials to Peabody, beginning next month.
"You've got a courthouse in Salem that is overstressed, and then you've got Peabody, which is relatively underutilized," Brennan said. "It made sense, at least in my view."
But not everyone is happy with the arrangement. After meeting with Brennan and other court staff last week, David Hallinan, head of the Essex County Bar Advocate program, said he sees potential problems.
The bar advocate program arranges for private attorneys to represent low-income defendants, who make up a majority of the criminal cases in area courts. The attorneys, who earn $50 an hour, bill the state's public defender office.
Typically, private attorneys who accept appointments try to schedule as many cases as possible on the same day in the same court. It's more efficient for them, but it also saves the state money, because they are paid for a set amount of "wait" time per day. Sending them to another court on a different day could cost more money, Hallinan said.
He's also concerned that prosecutors in a different courthouse won't be as familiar with a case as ones who have worked on it for months prior to trial, making it harder for lawyers to negotiate plea bargains. And he said he's concerned about the comparative lack of public transportation to downtown Peabody, compared with Salem.
Reducing wait time
But Brennan believes that any additional costs and inconvenience will be offset by the savings from quicker trial dates.
"My hope is that it makes the system work better both for members of the bar and the public, so that it reduces wait time and makes the court experience more efficient for them," Brennan said.
His goal is to set trial dates that are "real," unlike what tends to happen in busy courts, where cases get postponed or "continued" two or three times. That is a source of frustration not only for defendants and victims, but for area police chiefs, who have to pay for their officers to be present for each trial date.
That, he believes, will ultimately save money.
It's not the first time Salem has sent its jury cases to Peabody District Court, which was intended to handle jury trials from all over the North Shore when it was built. That's part of the reason why its jurisdiction includes just two communities.
Brennan said the jury trials would likely be returned to Salem after the new courthouse opens.
The move is part of a reshuffling of area courts. A gun court session, which had been held in Peabody, is being moved back to Lynn. Most of the cases in the gun court were originally Lynn cases.
One suggestion that has been raised is a redistricting of the area's courts. Police from Middleton drive past the Peabody courthouse on their way to Salem, and the courthouses are roughly the same distance away from the Danvers police station.
Brennan said the idea of redistricting has come up in the past, but is not something on the table now.
"That's a legislative issue," Brennan said. "There's really not anything we can do on this end."

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