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NC Budget and Tax Center

Gov. McCrory’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2015 and respective budgets by the House and Senate include significant cost savings from closing and downsizing various correctional facilities. Savings from these changes total around $14.2 million in both the House and Senate budgets and $14.9 million in the Governor’s budget.

Savings generated from these changes could have been used to promote safer communities across the state.  However, lawmakers went down a different path. For instance, Gov. McCrory advocated for state funding for drug treatment courts to be included in the state’s current fiscal year budget. These courts cost a fraction of the nearly $28,000 it cost to keep individuals in prison. However, the final budget passed last year by state policymakers did not include funding for drug treatment courts.

All three budget proposals for fiscal year 2015 – which begin July 1, 2014 – fail to include funding for drug treatment courts. The House and Senate budgets, however, go further and cut funding for programs that promote fair and equitable access to the justice system and safe communities across the state.

Funding cuts to Justice and Public Safety in the House and Senate budgets include:

  • Elimination of the Access to Civil Justice Fund, which supports the representation of poor North Carolinians in civil cases.
  • Reduction of administration funding for Indigent Defense Services, which in part oversees the provision of legal representation to indigent defendants and others entitled to counsel under North Carolina law.
  • Reduction of administration funding for Administration of the Courts

Due to tax changes enacted last year, state policymakers are constrained in major ways. This is effectively a self-imposed budget challenge. Nevertheless, as demonstrated with choices made within the Justice and Public Safety area of the budget, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Budget writers found revenue by making significant changes to the operations of various correctional facilities as well as by cutting state funding for programs that work to enhance the efficacy of the state’s justice system. These state funding cuts would limit service providers’ ability to assist individuals and families in need to legal representation.

What is clear from all three budgets is that state lawmakers are continuing down a dangerous path of more state funding cuts rather than reinvestment as the state recovers from the Great Recession. One can only hope that as budget writers work to negotiate a final budget for the upcoming 2015 fiscal year, state funding is restored for these programs that were put on the chopping block in the House and Senate budgets.

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Guilford-Courthouse-150x150When it comes to providing access to justice for the state’s most vulnerable residents, North Carolina ranks slightly above-average, according to The Justice Index, a new report from the National Center for Access to Justice at Cardozo Law School in New York.

In its initial report from an ongoing study, the center looked at and assigned a score for these elements of state-based justice systems:

  • the number of civil legal aid attorneys serving the poor;
  • systems available to assist self represented litigants;
  • systems available to assist people with limited English proficiency; and,
  • systems available to assist people with disabilities.

States were assigned a score in each category based on data volunteers collected from the state court systems over the past year. From there, states were assigned an overall composite score on a scale of 1 to 100.

North Carolina came in 20th place overall in offering access to the courts for our most vulnerable residents. That ranking largely resulted from higher scores for the provision of qualified foreign language interpreters — with the state ranked 18th — and for disability assistance, with the state — in an 11-way tie — ranked third.

But the state ranked 33d in providing assistance for pro se litigants and 38th for the number of lawyers per people in poverty. For every 10,000 people in poverty here, the state has less than one lawyer (.84).

Sadly, we already know that here. As Gene Nichol, director of the UNC School of Law Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity wrote in October:

In North Carolina, over 80 percent of poor and low-income folks – facing wrenching legal wrongs or challenges – can’t get legal representation. The courthouse door maybe open, but only in theory. They can’t use it.

But now the rest of the country knows that as well.