With $3 million to go, AG Josh Stein says he cannot make any more cuts to DOJ (with video)

Attorney General Josh Stein eliminated 45 positions Wednesday after a $10 million budget cut implemented by the General Assembly. (Photo by Nelle Dunlap)

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein announced Thursday that he was forced to eliminate 45 positions at the Department of Justice after the legislature slashed his budget by $10 million.

Agencies that are DOJ clients have agreed to fund an additional 40 lawyer positions, which represents about $3.5 million in savings. That leaves $3 million in the balance but Stein said he cannot make any more cuts.

“We’ve cut the Attorney General’s Office into the bone and we cannot go deeper,” he said at a press conference at the DOJ. “Now, the legislature is going to be in and out of session a number of times in the next coming months, so I repeat my call to the General Assembly: protect the people of North Carolina and reconsider these cuts that put risk on the people of our state.”

More than half of the positions Stein eliminated were attorney positions.

“I want to tell you some of what North Carolina lost yesterday,” he said, listing some of the people who were laid off:

  • “Three lawyers with vast knowledge handling criminal appeals of convicted child sex offenders. This is incredibly difficult, draining work and absolutely critical to public safety;
  • An attorney who enforces our child support laws and goes after deadbeat parents who are not doing right by their kids;
  • A lawyer with 30 years of experience protecting the quality of the water that we drink;
  • Attorneys who defend the state, often in frivolous cases, against claims of negligence. Each one of those claims have the potential liability to the taxpayer of $1 million;
  • Experts in complex tobacco cases that bring into North Carolina’s coffers hundreds of millions of dollars every year.”

And that’s just a handful of the dozens of people who will no longer serve North Carolinians, Stein added.

Other cuts he had to make will primarily affect district attorneys across the state, as DOJ attorneys will no longer be able to handle all criminal appeals, the prosecution of complex or conflict cases or motions for appropriate relief (MARs).

Pitt County District Attorney Kimberly Robb, who is also President of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, and Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman spoke at the press conference about the burden the cuts will create.

“We already do not have the manpower and the resources we need to do the job we already undertake, so I believe this is going to be a very difficult transition for us and we will need to be properly funded,” Robb said.

Pitt County District Attorney Kimberly Robb spoke Thursday at a press conference about how a $10 million DOJ cut would affect prosecutors across the state. (Photo by Nelle Dunlap)

The change is going to require a lot of travel to Raleigh to argue at the Court of Appeals and a lot more time out of the office, she added. There will need to be more experienced prosecutors on staff to handle conflict cases, which arise frequently.

“I think this is going to be a seismic shift for our offices in that right now we are on the front lines; we are trial attorneys, we are not appellate attorneys,” Robb said. “We’re out there protecting the public. We’re out there fighting the opioid crisis. We’re out there dealing with gang violence. We’re out there dealing with domestic violence cases; and I have to say that anything that takes us away from those primary responsibilities is dangerous if we’re not adequately funded.”

Other cuts that were made directly affect the law enforcement community. Some of the lawyers whose positions were eliminated were part of the Law Enforcement Liaison Section of the DOJ.

They provided legal training at the Justice Academy; they reviewed law enforcement training curriculum, tried cases related to video poker and tried cases and offered advice to both the Criminal Justice and Sheriffs’ Education and Training Standards Commissions.

“I appreciate what Attorney General Stein has done to try to mitigate so far the cuts he’s made,” said Pender County Sheriff Carson Smith, who is President of the N.C. Sheriff’s Association. “It’s hurt so far, but if it continues to cut, there will be a tremendous impact on the entire law enforcement community across the state.”

Smith said he traveled to Raleigh “because this is where you can take care of things,” adding that he hopes the legislature will find a way to get the funding back to the DOJ.

Garner Police Chief Brandon Zuidema also spoke about the cuts on behalf of the N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police.

He said the training facilitated by the DOJ is critical to police agencies across the state. He also expressed concern about the reduction to the Law Enforcement Liaison section and the new burden on district attorneys.

“I think the most baseline argument as we continue to see new threats, new crimes, new dangers across North Carolina, we’re in a situation where we need more help and not less,” Zuidema said.

Stein continues to try to work with the legislature and hopes lawmakers will see the err of their ways before having to cut an additional $3 million, but House Speaker Tim Moore didn’t give much credence Thursday to the plight.

“We believe the resource is there for the Attorney General to fully take care of the criminal issues in North Carolina,” he said in a video released by House communications director Joseph Kyzer. “We also believe that some of the civil work the Attorney General’s Office does can be moved to those other agencies, so the last thing the Attorney General needs to do is do anything that impedes with the criminal justice process. He has adequate resources, very adequate resources, to take care of those issues.”

Stein said lawmakers never asked him how the DOJ’s budget works or how its money is spent before making the cut, which was not included in either the House or the Senate draft budgets.

He is still having conversations with state agencies, boards and commissions to solicit funds to ease the budget cuts, according to his Communications Director Laura Brewer. For that reason, the DOJ is not naming the agencies that agreed to fund the additional 40 lawyer positions.

Stein said he has tried to prioritize and keep as many attorney positions as he can but 95 percent of the DOJ budget represents its people.

“We’re not a department that runs a lot of programs or has a lot of things that can be cut other than human beings,” he said.

He added that he will do everything in his power to protect the North Carolinians from the “irresponsible” cuts.

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