Under the Dome

Understaffing, outdated technology, unstable funding threaten courts

A new committee of legislators that is looking for ways to save money by making the courts more efficient recently heard just how difficult a task that will be.

Lawmakers on the House Judicial Efficiency and Effective Administration of Justice committee, meeting for the first time earlier this month, were given an overview of a statewide judicial system struggling to keep up with caseloads amid budget cuts.

John W. Smith, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, presented the grim news: About 700 positions need to be added to handle the projected work – at a cost of $100 million over two years; computer technology is so outdated few still know how to work on it; and relying on fines and fees to offset budget reductions creates a precarious source of funding.

“Do you have any answers?” asked Rep. Allen McNeill, a first-term Republican House member from Asheboro and retired law enforcement officer.

“More funding,” Smith replied.

The AOC controls the budgets for the state’s judges, prosecutors, clerks and magistrates. It is not alone among agencies struggling with budget cuts that began several years ago during the recession under Democratic rule. Cuts have continued through the current Republican majority in the General Assembly with its emphasis on lower taxes and shifting costs to people who use the courts.

Smith and others warn that continuing to cut poses a real danger to the independence of the courts, as judges, prosecutors and other attorneys look for alternate sources of revenue for their own courthouses rather than relying on the distribution of statewide funds based on estimated caseloads.

“This recession has tested the court system,” Smith said.

If Smith’s report to the legislature was blunt, it is one he has become accustomed to delivering. After a career as a prosecutor, District Court judge and special Superior Court judge, Smith was appointed by state Supreme Court Justice Sarah Parker in 2008, just as the recession was hitting. He has been trying to fortify the agency against budget reductions ever since.

Smith’s introduction to the new judicial efficiency committee began with the comment that the court system lost 600 positions before the recession and 500 afterward.

“That’s not efficient,” he said.

Courts’ integrity threatened

The committee is expected to take a close look at caseloads in each court and prosecutorial district in the state and the volume of prosecutions for each judge and district attorney, examine whether caseloads could be handled more efficiently, look at what support staff does, and determine how salaries compare across the state.

There are about 6,000 employees in the court system, including more than 500 elected officials.

In 2011 and 2012, the General Assembly eliminated close to 200 full-time positions in the court system in addition to 61 magistrates. This year, the legislature restored 22 magistrate positions at a cost of $1 million, and provided another $1 million for court interpreters, experts and jury fees.

But the legislature also cut $4 million from the AOC’s administration division, making budget requests something of a minefield, as Smith told the committee:

“I’m a little cautious,” he said. “You’ve got to be careful what you ask for – you might have to pay for it.”

Smith said he is concerned about relying on fees that people pay when they file lawsuits or when they are ordered to pay fines or other court costs, which lawmakers have also been gradually increasing. At one time, Smith said, court costs amounted to about one-third of the AOC’s operations and now account for more than half.

The number of case filings statewide shot up to 3.5 million during the 2008 recession but has been dropping since then and is now at 2.9 million, according to the AOC. Notably, the number of motor vehicle criminal violations and infractions, which are the most common kinds of cases filed in court, dropped dramatically in the past few years. That means less money is coming into the system.

Smith also noted that some local judges, prosecutors and lawyers have found funding on their own for specialty courts that they are committed to, such as those dealing with drugs and mental health. In some cases, they have turned to counties for money.

“That’s a danger,” Smith said. “I like the old, simple approach: The General Assembly decides what people need and allocates the funds clean and clear. You don’t have judges going cap in hand to counties. You don’t have district attorneys looking for funding from those who have interests in the outcomes of cases.

“All of these things are threats to the integrity of the court system that I feel are increasing rather than diminishing.”

Smith said he has reluctantly approved contracts with counties that are willing to pay to provide additional prosecutors or support staff. In that situation, counties can benefit from an increase in convictions and court-ordered costs, which presents a potential conflict.

“I view it as a plank in a shipwreck,” Smith told the committee. “It was necessary to save the system.”

Rep. Ted Davis Jr., a Republican lawyer from Wilmington and co-chairman of the committee, said he agreed the integrity of the system had to be protected, but he said the state should explore options.

“The traditional way of funding is raising taxes,” Davis said. “That’s difficult, especially in a recession. I’m a proponent of looking for creative ways.”

Technology challenges

Technology that has become antiquated is another challenge, and one that is facing states and the federal government. Smith said a recurring question is whether it’s better to buy the latest technology or get the cheapest and upgrade it later.

The AOC’s mainframe-based computer software language is written in COBOL, one of the oldest coding languages around. It is increasingly difficult to maintain and upgrade it.

The AOC recently hired a new chief information technology officer, who will begin tackling those kinds of problems. But there are other tech problems, Smith said, such as finding parts to run the machines that are converting paper records to microfilm. The legislature cut $5 million from the agency’s technology budget in 2011.

The judicial efficiency committee has a long way to go before it makes recommendations to the full legislature next year, but lawmakers seemed sympathetic to Smith’s concerns.

“We’ve got to make sure we’re fully funding the courts and law enforcement,” Rep. Justin Burr, a Republican bail bondsman from Albemarle who is the other co-chairman, observed as he brought the meeting to a close.