10/11/17 — State budget cuts hurt local district attorney's office

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State budget cuts hurt local district attorney's office

By Steve Herring
Published in News on October 11, 2017 5:50 AM

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Mike Ricks works on cases in the District Attorney's Office Tuesday morning. The workload of Ricks and others in the office increased in September following a round of layoffs in the Attorney General's Office.

The workload of the local District Attorney's Office increased in September after the North Carolina Attorney General's Office responded to legislature-imposed budget cuts by laying off 9 percent of the state agency's attorneys.

Wayne, Lenoir and Greene County District Attorney Matthew Delbridge said his office is unprepared to handle the increased courtroom responsibilities.

"The bottom line is that we already lack the resources to serve the public in the way it deserves, and this only makes it worse," Delbridge said in an email.

Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein announced the move in August as a response to the budget cuts imposed by Republican lawmakers, who said Stein had enough money to keep the criminal justice process moving along, according to an Associated Press report.

A total of $10 million was cut from the state agency's budget.

Laura Brewer, a spokesperson for the attorney general's office, said the agency examined "every option available" before deciding to lay people off and shift work to local district attorneys' offices.

"We reviewed and paused existing IT projects, eliminated open positions, etc.," Brewer wrote in an email. "But unfortunately the magnitude of the legislature's $10 million budget cut - which was made specifically to only the legal and management divisions and amounts to nearly 40 percent of that total budget - required layoffs."

Delbridge said the layoffs at the state attorney general's office resulted in his office taking responsibility for handling all probation appeals; all non-DWI misdemeanor appeals; noncapital motions for appropriate relief; all pro se petitions for extraordinary writs; and some special prosecutions.

"... This action absolutely would not have been taken if our office was adequately funded to do this work," Brewer said.

The local district attorney's office, which covers all three counties, began handling these new responsibilities Sept. 1.

"This action creates an additional, unfunded burden on my office already dealing with increases in digital evidence, sex offender hearings, motions for appropriate relief, expungements and the impending shift of resources needed to address raising the age for juveniles," Delbridge said.

State lawmakers voted earlier this year to "raise the age" for juvenile offenders. This means crimes allegedly committed by people younger than 18 years old will no longer be heard in adult court, beginning Dec. 1, 2019.

North Carolina was one of the last states in the nation to still charge people as young as 16 as adults prior to the legislation being passed.

The move to raise the age garnered wide bipartisan support in the state legislature.

In addition to preparing for this historical shift, Delbridge's office will now need to deal with handling a large array of additional responsibilities as a consequence of the layoffs in the state attorney general's office.

Stein asked lawmakers to restore $3 million of the $10 million cut from his office to stymie layoffs, but to no avail. Brewer said as of Wednesday, the legislature took up action to require the attorney general's office to do all criminal appeals briefs, but added no funding to help with the new responsibilities.

"The AG's office absolutely wants to do this work and takes seriously our responsibility to keep North Carolinians safe, but we must be adequately funded to do so," Brewer said.

Delbridge said his office is not prepared to address the new areas of appellate practice placed on it by the layoffs, as it requires specific expertise that the office has no training or experience in.

"The average prosecutor handles a caseload of over 300 superior court cases per year, and the adding to that the responsibility of an area of expertise they have no experience or training in has the risk of putting both the pursuit of justice and the public at risk," Delbridge said.