Under the Dome

NC Courts pleased with NC House spending plan

The House's proposed spending plan for the courts and public safety does not include everything Chief Justice Mark Martin asked for when he addressed the General Assembly months ago imploring legislators to invest more in the struggling court system.

But Tom Murry, a former state legislator from Morrisville hired by the courts to lobby their case, said there is much to cheer in the House spending plan — the $6.3 million added to the operating budget and $11.9 million for technology that could help bring an antiquated court-filing system into the digital age.

The plan falls short of the $16 million in courts operating money that Martin asked for the rare address to legislators in February. That total did not include the money needed for technology improvements.

"The sum and substance of how we feel right now is we are very pleased with the plan," Murry said Thursday.

A snapshot of the plan includes:

Funding for 70 new positions.

As the prisons see more inmates with mental health issues, the house budget allocates $3.3 million toward the establishment of the first four of the eight behavioral-health units planned at eight high-security prisons. The plan also provides $1.16 million for 35 new workers starting Jan. 1 at the Central Prison Health Care Facility, which is adding 72 new beds. Another 31 positions could be added in 2017 if the two-year spending plan is funded as proposed.

The spending plan would add six new technician jobs at the State Crime lab to assist with non-analytical assignments. The intention is to free forensic scientists from doing paperwork and record-keeping so the scientists can tend to the backlog of testing that has plagued the court system. In recent years, prosecutors have complained about not getting DNA tests and other lab results in a timely manner.

The House plan calls for five new workers to develop courses and training for law enforcement agencies on "appropriate use-of-force" training.

Nearly $1.3 million would go toward the expansion of the N.C. Business Courts, adding two special superior court judges to be designated to cases there and an executive assistant and two judicial assistants.

In a different tack from the governor's proposed budget, the House plan calls for moving the state office of Indigent Defense Services under the Administrative Office of the Courts.

The governor's proposal called for adding to the indigent defense fund for private assigned lawyers representing people deemed indigent by the courts. In recent years, the state office of Indigent Defense Services has had to suspend pay for attorneys before the end of the fiscal year because resources have been exhausted. That has slowed the courts and made it difficult for private attorneys trying to balance budgets.

The House plan calls for study of the services.