Threatened Budget Cuts Worry Courts
Moore County court officials fear their operations could grind to a halt if some budget cuts recently contemplated at the state level were to go through.
A last-minute reprieve in the subcommittee working on the N.C. House budget saved positions considered absolutely essential by Moore's district attorney and clerk of court. Both warned that their offices could hardly function if denied adequate staff. Other court-support staff members find their jobs still uncertain.
One staffer who feels budget cutters breathing down her neck is Becky Carlson, who works in Sentencing Services. She assists courts by finding nonprofit drug treatment facilities and other alternatives to active prison time and recommending them to judges. She doesn't work for either prosecutors or defenders, but helps judges judge with information.
Her work more than pays for itself, Carlson says.
"Just one of my cases saved the state enough to pay my entire salary for last year," she said in a recent interview. "Just one. Cutting these services won't save North Carolina money; it will cost more to cut than it could possibly save."
State Rep. Jamie Boles knows Carlson's work and doesn't disagree with her assessment. But he says the subcommittee working on the House budget doesn't regard that area as essential.
"I think the AOC (Administrative Office of the Courts) will come out faring better than most of the other departments," Boles said in a telephone interview Friday morning. "By the beginning of 2011, they are predicting we are going to be 2,000 beds short in our prison systems. The options are: do you treat the person, treat the symptoms? Or do you just lock 'em up?"
The budget for Sentencing Service is still apparently on the chopping block, Boles said.
"Becky Carlson does a super job for Moore County and the state of North Carolina," he said, "but they are looking at that as an added service to the court system, not a core service."
Less Money, More Work
Some cuts are definitely going to affect Moore County Sheriff Lane Carter's office.
"They are looking to put more of the cost of incarceration back on local government," he said. "Yesterday -- in the committee -- the Sheriffs' Association said they cannot handle the number of inmates (of county jails) now. They cannot receive the mandates that are going to be handed down. They're going to ask counties not only to incarcerate more, but to do it for less money."
Sheriffs don't have the ability to "turn them loose" when jails fill, but do have the authority to put inmates in work release as long as they continue to monitor them, according to Boles. Only a judge can change the sentence.
"As far as the court system right now, I think we may be in good shape," Boles said. "As far as Corrections, I still have concerns."
Moore County District Attorney Maureen Krueger keeps on her desk a copy of the newspaper from her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, that she brought back after a recent visit with her parents. A lead story tells how overcrowding means turning away people who've just been sentenced.
Krueger says convicts are being told, "There's no room in the jail. Come back later to serve your sentence."
In Carthage, switching costs of incarceration from state to county would hit the local budget hard. The state had a narrow escape when the proposed cuts in the Administrative Office of the Courts were restored. Without investigators and paralegals helping Krueger get cases to trial, without clerks in the courtroom, trials could bog down and the jail could fill with people waiting for their cases to be heard.
It is a situation that has happened before. Staffing levels were already years behind recommended levels before either Krueger or Moore County Clerk of Superior Court Susan Hicks took office.
"I have one vacancy now," Hicks said. "If I leave that position unfilled, we can still make it. Our case filings are up 11 percent from last year. If I lose one more position, we won't be able to do the job."
Crime Is Up
Already this year, Moore County has had an increase in violent crimes, Krueger says, adding that those statistics do not even include recent events like the multiple murders at Pine Lake that brought worldwide media attention to the county seat.
Without an investigator to find witnesses needed for trial -- many of whom could have moved between the time of an arrest or indictment and the time the case hits a court calendar -- prosecutors could find their cases untriable. Mike Kimbrell, a retired Southern Pines police detective now with the district attorney's office, says he's had to go out of state as far as Florida to make sure an essential witness would be available to testify.
Victims and their families, as well as witnesses, communicate with the prosecutor handling their case through paralegals, who also do a great amount of detailed paperwork associated with cases and attend court to support the DA handling each case, whether it is a traffic ticket in District Court or a multiple murder capital case before a Superior Court jury.
Staff members of the House Judicial and Public Safety Subcommittee (JPS) originally targeted $43.6 million in cuts from a Judicial Department budget that includes the AOC, which funds district attorneys and clerks of court. It was proposed without the knowledge of the AOC.
"There is a rumor that the AOC made recommendations for cuts," said Judge John W. Smith, AOC director. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
House leaders trying to complete their version of the budget by the end of May had staked out a number of guidelines. They would cut $4.5 billion in state spending rather than raise taxes, reduce salaries, or furlough employees. A May 20 proposal cut nearly six times as much from schools and safety net agencies than all other state agencies combined, cutting $1.6 billion out of Education and $1.2 from Health and Human Services. The rest of state government would lose $.5 billion.
Safety at Stake ?
Safety is at stake if courts are hobbled by cuts, Hicks said. Without a sufficient staff of qualified assistant and deputy clerks, even a multiple-murder trial could come to a stop in midstream.
"We can't bring a clerk from some other county if one or two are out sick," Hicks said. "Without a clerk in the courtroom, we could not proceed with a trial."
There could come a day with a judge on the bench, defense lawyers and prosecutors ready to proceed, witness waiting to be called, a jury in the box, even a courtroom crowded as last Thursday by the families of victims, a bank of TV crews, photographers and reporters -- and all told to go home, Hicks said.
"North Carolina courts have always been underfunded," said Krueger. "Now we have social issues that we never had before -- potential gang issues, a bad economy. The General Assembly creates new laws every year and enhances penalties for different things. There is more work for us. It is not like crime has stopped. Now is not the time to turn the back on justice."
Among cuts originally suggested by the JPS staff without consulting the AOC were eliminating all investigators who help DAs prepare cases for trial and cutting in half the number of victim-witness coordinators -- paralegals already trained at state expense to handle the vast administrative burdens associated with case preparation.
Those jobs are safe for now, said Boles, who serves on that committee. However, more of the burdens of incarceration are likely to be visited on counties, with lower support for county jails coming from the state.
Changes in Costs
Increases in fees and new fees will take the place of a tax increase to pay for some things. "There are three pages of proposed fee increases," he said. "From closing costs to mapping fees to the voluntary dismissal, prayer for judgment fees -- I've got three pages of fees."
Even modest fee increases have in the past enabled the state to continue to function without raising taxes when revenue dropped. Clerks of court were able to add enough positions to bring staffing up somewhat last year and the year before, when fees for certain services went up just a little. Increased court fees effective Aug. 1, 2007, funded judicial positions. After a study by the National Center for State Courts showed the state needed more clerk support, 297 deputy clerk positions were created.
"The addition of these 297 positions brought every clerk's office up to a staffing level of 94 percent of what the study indicated we needed -- except for Wake and Mecklenburg, which remained at 85 percent," Hicks said. "That study was based on 2006 data, not 2009 staffing level needs."
But Hicks said last year's court cost changes that became effective July 20, 2008, did not fund any judicial positions. Though a single dollar added to costs of court for criminal, civil, estates, and special proceedings filings, the added revenue was for maintenance and operation of a judicial branch phone system. At the same time, the fee charged to file for divorce did go up from $55 to $75. However, that $20 increase was to be credited to the Domestic Violence Center Fund.
With an 11 percent increase in case filings in Moore County, Hicks is trying to meet 2009 demands with a 2002 level staff. Further cuts could push staffing levels back into the last century, she said.
Both Hicks and Krueger have been doing what they can to make sure all their staff members are capable of handling every task. They do "cross-training" and move workers from job to job so they can make sure their offices won't find themselves without a trained person if one or another worker leaves or is out sick.
"Prior to the study, the clerks' offices were just given positions at random and not based on any statistics," Hicks said. "The statistics help us plan our positions better."
Passport Services Cut
Hicks herself was an assistant clerk of court over deputy clerks when Catherine Graham retired and recommended Hicks as her successor. Graham herself had been forced to cut some services, eliminating support for passport application even as the federal government added regulations requiring passports for previously unrestricted travel.
The Post Office in Robbins is now the only county location accepting passport applications. During this particular budget cycle, the General Assembly is looking at getting the state back to its core business.
"The state is going to have to decide what state government does," said N.C. Sen. Harris Blake. "Education, public safety, roads -- those are important."
Boles agrees, though he wouldn't put roads as high on the list. Neither would Krueger.
"We can get by awhile without building a new road," she said. "We might have to wait to fill potholes. People are going to commit crime. Tough times mean more crimes."
Contact John Chappell at 783-5841 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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