With the N.C. General Assembly due to re-convene soon after the holidays, the Durham Crime Cabinet has drawn up a wish list for the legislators.
No. 1, more money – or, at least, no less.
“Over the last six years there have been over $80 million in cuts” to the state’s judicial system, said Durham’s Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey.
“It’s a travesty,” she said.
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The Crime Cabinet is an advocacy group of local government and justice-system officials as well as private citizens with interest in crime and its prevention.
Before each General Assembly session, the cabinet endorses one or more goals for Durham legislators to pursue. The court funding goal, which the Crime Cabinet unanimously endorsed last week, is simply for no further cuts.
Morey, though, said the legislature needs to “properly and adequately fund our court system, which is not being done right now.”
Lawmakers begin the 2015 session Jan. 14. The biennial “long session” includes preparing the state’s budget for 2015-16.
North Carolina is not unique.
According to “Funding Justice: Strategies and Messages for Restoring Court Funding” ( bit.ly/1xu8Rwt), a 2013 report by the National Center for State Courts and the advocacy group Justice at Stake, “across the country, the judiciary’s treasured constitutional role has not spared it from the budget axe. Access to justice is in peril.”
But, according to Morey, cuts in North Carolina have made it the third-lowest state in spending on the judicial system. The state used to spend about 3 percent of its total budget on the courts; now, it spends about 2.2 percent, she said.
In fiscal 2012-13, according to the National Center for State Courts ( bit.ly/11sLjLp) North Carolina was one of seven states that cut court funding from the previous year; in more than half the states, funding was increased.
The most recent legislative session cut another $7.5 million from the judiciary budget, Morey said.
Lowered funding, she said, “results in denial of access to justice it results in people waiting longer, trials being delayed, and our not doing our constitutional role for the citizens of this state.”
Statewide, she said, courts have lost more than 600 full-time staff positions. In Durham, that has meant elimination of clerk and victim-advocate positions, fewer court interpreters and court reporters.
“It’s pretty clear, from the disposition-rate numbers across the state, that it’s taking longer for everyone to dispose of cases,” said District Attorney Roger Echols.
“In some cases, people stay in jail longer. ... Defendants’ families, victims and their families, have to wait longer for the case to be disposed of,” he said.
Durham’s Family Court, one of 11 in the state that focuses on divorce, child custody and juveniles in trouble with the law, has particularly suffered, Morey said.
Salaries for open Family Court administrator positions have been reduced more than 15 percent, she said, “to that of an assistant deputy clerk ... with no guarantee the job is permanent, because the General Assembly is reviewing the family courts the next session.
“We have felt the ramifications of that with two vacancies in our Durham family court because people want permanency and they’re afraid these jobs will be eliminated next year,” she said.
According to a memo Morey and other court personnel prepared for the Crime Cabinet, some jobs are being left unfilled to save money for juror fees – spending projections show that otherwise the fund for jurors would be exhausted by April 2015.
“This is just devastating,” said City Councilman Eugene Brown, the Crime Cabinet’s co-chairman.
“What is the rationale for trying to do justice on the cheap?” he asked.
“It’s popular to reduce spending in government,” Morey said, “and the courts are a government service.”
Besides preserving court funding at its current level, the Crime Cabinet wants the General Assembly to:
• Increase funding through the Justice Reinvestment Act for local services such as drug treatment and rehabilitation and re-entry assistance for individuals coming into communities after incarceration;
• Raise the compulsory school attendance age to 18;
• Raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18 for nonviolent, misdemeanor offenses.