RALEIGH — As he announced the lowest statewide crime rate in 33 years on Wednesday, state Attorney General Roy Cooper decried recent state budget cuts to law enforcement and prevention efforts that he says will make it harder to fight crime in the future.
The overall crime rate dropped 5.6 percent in 2010, while violent crime was down 10.2 percent compared to the previous year, Cooper said. It's the lowest statewide crime rate since 1977 and includes the lowest murder rate since North Carolina began tracking crime statewide in 1973.
But Cooper noted that among other things, the new state budget cuts 9 percent from the State Bureau of Investigation, including 42 jobs and 20 percent of an equipment budget that pays for high-tech instruments used in the state's crime lab.
"Well-trained law enforcement, up-to-date technology and smart prevention efforts are key to solving and reducing crime," Cooper said in a statement. "To keep crime rates moving down, we need better budget decisions that promote public safety, not hurt it."
State Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Jacksonville who co-chairs the appropriations committee on justice and public safety, said that as much as the legislature hated to eliminate any programs it had to balance the budget.
"It's a tough budget for all of us...everybody took a cut; education, health and human services. Everybody had to be part of the solution," Brown said. "I'm sure the attorney general is not the only one out there screaming. But he'll be OK. Hopefully, when the economy gets better we can restore some of these programs."
The state Department of Justice compiles crime statistics from data provided by local law enforcement agencies. Crime rates dropped in each of the six Triangle counties last year, led by a 7.4 percent decline in Johnston County.
Last year was the third consecutive year that crime rates had declined statewide, extending a long-term trend. Murders fell 7.3 percent, while rapes dropped 14.3 percent, and robberies were down 19.4 percent.
"I think that's the best news because that's what people worry about most," Susan Katzenelson, executive director of the N.C. Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission, said of the dramatic drop in violent crime.
All categories of property crime also fell, led by motor vehicle thefts, which were down 12.5 percent.
Created in 1990 by the General Assembly, the 30-member advisory commission makes recommendations to the legislature about sentencing laws and policies.
Katzenelson said a combination of factors may be driving down crime rates. She thinks more criminal convictions and longer sentences for serious offenders may figure into the equation, as do shifting demographics, where young men make up a smaller portion of the population.
"I'm not being sexist, but let's face it," Katzenelson said. "Younger men commit the most crimes."
Katzenelson at least partly agrees with Cooper: Budget cuts are going to present challenges in local and state law enforcement efforts.
"I don't think it's solely because of the budget," she said. "Crime trends go up and down. The trends fluctuate. But funding certainly makes a difference. I absolutely think there's a link, but how much, I don't know."
The new state budget cuts 9 percent and eight positions from the Justice Academy, which trains state law enforcement officers. Meanwhile, the state Highway Patrol could see layoffs with a $20 million cut over two years.
Drug treatment courts that divert substance abusers from criminal court and encourage treatment over incarceration, were eliminated from the state budget, though some receive money from local governments.
Katzenelson said drug courts are important because they address an underlying cause for a large percentage of crimes.
"They may not be in for drugs," she said. "It could be property crimes they committed to get drugs. I think we need more treatment."
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