Under the Dome

Senate nibbles at House justice, public safety budget

Senate belt-tightening continued in the justice and public safety budgets. While there are areas of agreement with the House, there are some big gaps between the two chambers. Here are some highlights:

Courts: The woefully out-of-date technology at the Administrative Office of the Courts would receive nothing from the Senate budget. The House budgeted $12 million for the first fiscal year, and another $7 million the next.

The Senate would spend about twice as much as the House into a fund that pays private appointed attorneys for indigent defendants, in order to reduce a shortfall that has built up over several years leading to late payments. The Senate set aside $4.4 million in each of the next two fiscal years; the House budgeted about $2 million in each year.

The Senate and House would spend about $10 million on court operating funds and legally required services such as interpreters and expert witnesses over the next two fiscal years. Both would spend $1.5 million over two years to ramp up use of the state’s business courts. Three special superior court judges would be eliminated at the end of their terms, this October and next January.

The Capital Defenders Office, which handles death penalty cases, would lose 19 percent of its staff by cutting seven positions, including four lawyers, two investigators and a legal assistant, under the Senate plan. No similar cuts were in the House budget.

Training: Both budgets set aside start-up costs for a closed youth detention center in Moore County that is being turned into a training academy for corrections staff with overnight accommodations. The Senate plan spends less and uses fewer people to run the facility. A simulator to train state law enforcement officers in appropriate use of force at the facility is also in both budgets.

Cameras: The House would install cameras in the State Highway Patrol cars that don’t already have them, but the Senate didn’t budget for that at all.

Prisons: A House plan to eliminate 56 positions assigned to watchtowers at four correctional institutions by installing electronic intrusion systems was whittled down in the Senate to only Harnett Correctional Institution and losing just 14 positions.

Prison mental health treatment: Both budgets add 66 positions to the Central Prison Mental Health Facility in Raleigh, which would allow it to expand to full capacity with 72 beds. The House also wants to establish mental health treatment units at eight maximum-security prisons and add 228 positions. The Senate slashed that to just one unit and staffing up all of the prisoner diagnostic centers with 58 new positions.

Juveniles: The Senate budget would spend $4 million over the next two years to make room in private and state-run facilities for juveniles who have been convicted of crimes. The budget for juvenile community programs would be increased by 11 percent to $20 million. The House proposed spending half a million dollars for substance-abuse treatment for high-risk offenders.

Crime lab: Both budgets would pay for six new technicians at the State Crime Lab, freeing up scientists to focus on more complicated cases and increase turnaround time.