It’s no secret that prosecutors and defense attorneys have their differences. Arguing with each other is what they do, after all.
But the state’s sour fiscal situation and the promised deep cuts to the state budget is making that chasm even wider, with the two groups of lawyers fighting for funds in the state Legislature.
The elevated split was apparent during a presentation made Tuesday by several elected district attorneys. The DAs told lawmakers that funding for themselves and court staff should be preserved, but that cuts should fall more on the N.C. Indigent Defense Services, the state agency that manages and provides constitutionally-required representation for poor criminal defendants.
When looking for cuts, “look here,” said Ben Davis, the elected district attorney of New Hanover and Pender counties, referring to IDS’ $132 million budget.
As Davis spoke, he was pointing to a projected slide that showed that the 44 district attorney offices in the state get $92 million in funding, while IDS gets $132 million. (The slide is the 10th in the presentation and can be seen here. A warning though, the slideshow included some autopsy photos and details of a homicide that some may find disturbing)
Later on in the presentation, Phil Berger Jr., the elected district attorney for Rockingham County, said defense attorneys were flush with resources in comparison with state prosecutors.
“We’re outspent and outgunned every day in the courtroom,” Berger said. (That’s not a typo, Berger is the son of a better-known Phil Berger on Jones Street, the GOP leader of the state Senate.)
The attack from DAs on indigent services is much more aggressive this year than it’s been in the past, said Thomas Maher, the head of N.C. Indigent Defense Services.
“It’s a new and disturbing era,” he said.
The financial assessment made by the prosecutors, that show that IDS gets more money for less work, is incorrect and oversimplifies the situation, he said.
IDS, which was created in 2000 in order to streamline how the state pays and maintain the quality of appointed defense attorneys, doesn’t just provide lawyers to all criminal defendants who can’t afford lawyers in the state, Maher said. It also provides lawyers to represent parents in abuse and neglect cases, as well as in cases where the N.C. Department of Social Services is trying to terminate parental rights. Those are cases that district attorneys have little to no involvement in, Maher said.
IDS’ budget also accounts for the cost of lawyers in appeals of convicted defendants in criminal cases, a costly and often lengthy legal process that’s a necessary check-and-balance in the legal process to prevent wrongful or unjust convictions. For prosecutors, that caseload and cost is picked up by the N.C. Attorney General’s Office, Maher said.
A big part of IDS budget goes to pay for appointed, effective counsel in criminal cases, a constitutional requirement that the state has to meet, Maher said. That’s not an area that can be cut with a steady number of people being charged with crimes. Maher expects that he’ll have to cut back the $75-per-hour payment that defense attorneys currently get for representing accused clients that can’t afford lawyers on their own. The state rate is lower than what most criminal defense attorneys get if hired privately, especially in the state’s urban areas.
“It’s very tight,” Maher said. “We’re going to run out of money to pay to pay assigned counsel in mid-May.”