North Carolina Republicans, like their brethren across the country, love to frame themselves as protectors of law and order. They especially love to mischaracterize progressive attempts at policing reform as calamitous cuts to police departments.
But in our state, there’s one party that’s been dangerously shorting the criminal justice system over the past decade. Incredibly, that party appears ready to continue doing so despite North Carolina’s $6.5 billion surplus.
According to a Charlotte Observer report, the Republican-led Senate has passed a $26 billion spending plan that would cut one prosecutor from the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s office, reducing the roster of assistant district attorneys to 84. (The House will likely pass its budget later this month.) Republicans also want to transfer a District Court judge from Durham to Bladen County and move two assistant public defender positions from Wake County to Robeson County.
Republican leaders didn’t initially respond to the Observer’s requests for comment on Mecklenburg’s loss, but Berger spokesman Pat Ryan told Axios last week that the Senate’s calculations showed the combined court district in Anson, Richmond and Scotland counties was one assistant district attorney short. Mecklenburg, as the largest, had the highest staffing level.
“Based on those two data points, it was a fairly simple decision,” said Ryan, who sent the same statement to the Editorial Board later last week.
It’s unfortunate to suggest that eliminating a vital criminal justice position is “simple.” It’s also insulting — not only to Mecklenburg County, but to every county with insufficient resources to properly administer justice. Funding of courts and prosecutors shouldn’t be a zero-sum calculation, especially in a state with billions in surplus.
While lawmakers in both parties have struggled at times to properly fund courts, Republicans in the past decade have been unstirred by urgent pleas about the growing courts crisis in North Carolina. Our state spent less per capita on its courts than any other state-funded system, according to data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2012, and our criminal justice system continues to be poorly funded.
That shortfall can be felt across the state, but it’s especially acute in North Carolina’s largest counties, Wake and Mecklenburg, which have fewer prosecutors than almost any other urban county their size nationally, a 2019 Charlotte Observer survey found. Mecklenburg, for example, should have more than 120 prosecutors — not 85 — according to David Labahn, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
The result: Our courts are experiencing severe backlogs. Our prosecutors and public defenders are stretched too thin. Deals are made that shouldn’t be made in an effort to lighten caseloads. A 2019 Observer investigation detailed how more court funding would help cut down on gun charge dismissals and put more prosecutors in high-crime neighborhoods. A 2021 Observer and News & Observer report revealed how an overtaxed district court system resulted in extreme speeders getting plea deals or having their cases dismissed.
All of which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. “Particularly at this moment in time, when courts have been relatively inactive, we have a large number of cases that have accumulated,” Democratic Rep. Joe John, a former judge and prosecutor from Wake County, told the Editorial Board this week. “The courts are going to need all their current resources and additional resources.”
But, he says: “There has been no additional help, at least not in the Senate budget.”
The solution really is simple, just not in the way the Senate leader and Republicans might think. Instead of hiding behind budget formulas or suggesting larger counties should pony up more, Senate and House leaders should explain why a state with a significant surplus lags in funding courts properly. They also should explain to victims of crime how taking prosecutors and judges from urban counties is not defunding the criminal justice system and delaying or denying justice.
Or maybe just answer this: Why doesn’t the party of law and order want to pay for it?