Justice system in state budget crosshairs

By: - June 11, 2014 8:08 am

Why-Courts-MatterNo matter how you read them, the Senate budget released in late May and the House budget released yesterday offer little salvation for the justice system in North Carolina.

The Senate budget guts funding for legal aid to state residents in lower income brackets, yet gives lawmakers preferential treatment in the courts when it comes to constitutional challenges to laws they’ve enacted.

The House budget shutters the Family Court while at the same time authorizing two new business court judgeships, consistent with proposals to expand that court and make the state friendlier to companies here and across the country.

Both cripple the Administrative Office of the Courts by slashing funding — the Senate specifically to the court’s antiquated technology.

And neither aligns with the Governor’s budget, which at least goes beyond minimal salary increases to give the courts a badly-needed infusion of resources.

Debate and conferences lie ahead, and some adjustments will be made, but it’s hard to envision even in compromise how the courts avoid further devastating cuts, particularly in those areas most needed by disadvantaged state residents.

The turf war over who controls the State Bureau of Investigation (both the Senate and the House move it from the Attorney General to the governor) and the State Crime Lab (only the Senate moves it to the governor) has been widely reported.

And the controversial Senate plan for three-judge panels to review constitutional challenges to state laws finds no place in the House budget.

But here’s a little more about what’s at stake for the courts and the state residents they serve.

Business over families

Here’s a suggestion for House lawmakers who propose to cut all state funding for Family Courts, to the tune of $3 million — eliminating 36 positions. (The Senate budget has no such cuts).

Try navigating your distressed family through a court system in which one judge handles your alimony issues, another addresses your child custody problem and still another rules on a domestic violence complaint – with no one coordinating that process.

Family Courts were authorized as a pilot project in three judicial districts in 1999, and expanded since to 13, to avoid that stress on families and courts alike.

“The system is designed to give one family one judge who knows the entire situation and can render consistent rulings,” Durham County Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey said. “It prevents piecemeal justice.”

And it works. The proof is in the numbers, Morey said. Cases in districts with Family Court have a median age of resolution of 116 days. Resolution in districts without Family Court takes three times longer, at 390 days.

The House proposal would mark the elimination of the second of three so-called “special courts,” with drug courts being cut last session.

Morey disputes that “special” designation.

“If North Carolina wants to honor families, protect children, and resolve cases efficiently and timely, the Family Court model is indispensable,” she said.

AOC Director John Smith agrees. “We have opposed any cuts to family courts for five legislative sessions,” he said in an email statement. “We consider them a critical service to communities throughout the state.”

What “special” court is left standing?

Business court, which gets a boost in the House budget. Pending bills propose an expansion and modernization of that court in an effort to make the state more business-friendly and, consistent with that, the budget adds two new judges there once two of the four special superior court judges on the chopping block finish out their terms.

Legal Aid stripped

The Senate budget may not touch Family Court, but it does strip funding for most legal aid services across the state — to the tune of nearly $1.8 million, according George Hausen, Director of Legal Aid of North Carolina. (The House budget contains no such cuts.)

It does that by eliminating the pass-through of court filing fees to the state bar, which in turn funds the provision of legal services to the state’s lower-income residents by three groups: Legal Aid of North Carolina, Legal Services of Southern Piedmont and Pisgah Legal Services.

Cutting any funding for these groups is a head-scratcher given the millions in direct and indirect benefits their services return to the state.

Consider this statement from a recent report by the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission:

“The total economic impact, including direct, indirect, and cost savings, of the provision of legal services by providers across the state is $48,775,276. That is, for every dollar spent to provide legal services from all funding sources in 2012, $2.08 is put into the economy. More specifically, for every dollar spent by the state to provide legal services, nearly $10 flows into the economy. The return on the state’s investment in legal services made to the three providers is 108%.”

Court filing fees are not the only funding stream subject to cuts. Both the Senate and House budgets eliminate a $670,000 Access to Civil Justice grant to legal aid.

Funding for the public defender corps also gets cut. The Senate budget reduces administrative funding for indigent services by 10 percent; in the House, cuts are 20 percent.

Direct cuts

Both the Senate and the House take an ax to system-wide funding of the courts. As reported previously, the Senate cut technology funding to the courts by $3.7 million and the remaining AOC administrative appropriation by an additional $1.5 million, leaving the overall AOC budget at a little under $40 million. Courts fared slightly better in the House budget, which reduced the AOC appropriation by $3 million, without specifying where cuts should be made.

Moving prisoners and money

As the closing and consolidation of prisons continues across the state, both the Senate and House reap savings by moving those convicted of misdemeanors out of state facilities and into county jails and by closing two minimum custody prisons for women and moving their inmates into a newly-converted facility in Greene county.

Invoking the terms of the Justice Reinvestment Act, lawmakers apply some of the savings toward the opening of two new short-stay facilities designed to house offenders who violate terms of their probation.

That’s really just closing one prison and reopening another, a strategy not necessarily consistent with the point of the Act, according to Lao Rubert, executive director of the Carolina Justice Policy Center.

And while using additional savings to fund probation officers and other post-release supervision services is not inherently a bad thing, neither budget funds community services needed to ease an offender’s re-entry into society and ultimately avoid recidivism.

Mental health, substance abuse treatment, transportation, housing, jobs – these are all issues that people coming out of prison or off probation need help with at the local level in order to be successful, Rubert said.

“We aren’t going to be successful at reducing recidivism if we don’t reinvest in local services in the community,” she added. “People live in the community. That’s where they find houses, that’s where they get jobs, that’s where they drive their cars.”

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Sharon McCloskey

Sharon McCloskey, former Courts, Law and Democracy Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch, writes about the courts and decisions that impact North Carolina residents. McCloskey also wrote for Lawyers Weekly and practiced law for more than 20 years. Follow her online at sharonmccloskey.com or @sharonmccloskey.