Budget could cost attorney general half his legal staff

cjarvis@newsobserver.comMarch 20, 2013 

  • How proposal would affect justice and public safety

    Prisons: Five prisons – in Wayne, Bladen, Duplin, Robeson and Burke counties – would be closed, for a loss of 685 jobs (out of a total of 784 total positions cut in the state Department of Public Safety). The proposed cuts are billed as a realignment of outdated and inefficient facilities. According to the budget document, the prison population has been declining and it would cost a lot of money to make the improvements needed to keep some of the facilities open. The budget estimates a $54 million savings over two years.

    Justice Reinvestment Act: About $20 million in savings from closing the prisons would be spent on hiring enough parole and probation officers to launch this sweeping criminal justice overhaul that the General Assembly approved last session.

    Its aim is to keep closer tabs on ex-offenders in hopes of preventing them from returning to prison, but the legislature never came up with the money to hire officers.

    The budget would hire 323 officers and add 16 new positions to the Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission. It would also convert 205 other positions into caseload-carrying officers. That would be enough so that each parole or probation officer handles 60 offenders, as the reform law intended. As of last year, the average caseload was 80 offenders.

    Drug courts: Sets aside more than $7 million to pay for drug treatment courts and adds 90 positions. In his State of the State speech in January, McCrory said he supported the concept; on Wednesday, he said he would fight to keep this in the budget. The legislature in 2011 cut funding for the courts, which promote treatment and supervision over punishment with the intent of saving money that would be spent on incarceration.

    State Bureau of Investigation: Expands the ability to do DNA and toxicology tests by funding a State Bureau of Investigation crime lab in the western part of the state, replaces crime lab equipment, adds SBI agents to fight methamphetamine abuse, prescription drug abuse and predators who use the Internet to victimize children.

— The Republican governor’s idea to strip the Democratic elected attorney general of half of his legal staff met with an unsurprising response Wednesday: Bad idea.

Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed budget would transfer 210 attorneys and support staff from the state Department of Justice to the state agencies where they already specialize. The move would put the staffs under the budgetary control and supervision of each of those agencies, rather than the attorney general.

Attorney General Roy Cooper’s spokeswoman said the result would be dispersing the legal staff to 14 different state agencies. That would be inefficient and it would hamper criminal court appeals, harm the state’s participation in cases that often lead to multimillion-dollar settlements, and weaken state agencies’ ability to receive independent legal advice, said Noelle Talley.

“We will work with the governor and the legislature to fix this,” Talley said in a statement.

Budget Director Art Pope said the transferred staff would be those who handle routine legal work. Most of the attorneys and support staff come from the state’s largest agencies: Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Department of Transportation.

Pope noted that agency legal staffs historically were part of each agency until they were moved to the justice department 20-some years ago.

Pope said his staff has discussed the changes with Cooper, and the attorney general had convinced the governor’s budget-writers that some lawyers needed to remain where they are. Those include attorneys assigned to certain law enforcement and to trial and appellate work, Pope said. He said about 234 attorneys and support staff would remain.

Jarvis: 919-829-4576

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