The House budget unveiled by Republican leaders Wednesday night would provide funding to establish new public defender offices serving eight counties across North Carolina, an infusion of funds to ensure poor people charged with crimes are adequately represented in court. But despite that there are such offices in less than half of the state’s 100 counties, lawmakers did not consider fully funding public defenders across North Carolina.
“There was nothing discussed amongst the chairs about expanding public defenders throughout the state,” said Rep. Ted Davis, Jr. (R-New Hanover), one of the chairs of the Justice and Public Safety Appropriations Committee. “That doesn’t mean it might not happen one day. But also, we took the amount of money that we had, and we tried to apply it to as many things as we could, and we addressed it to the public defender’s districts that we were asked to do.”
Rep. Joe John (D-Wake) asked whether Republican leaders had considered making a statement of the General Assembly’s intent to expand public defender districts across North Carolina. Davis said no.
Rep. Abe Jones (D-Wake) asked what it would cost to expand public defender services across the state — Davis didn’t answer that question and reiterated they only had so much money to allocate — and said he supported such a proposal.
“I think it is very badly needed,” Jones said. “It’s just a concept that I think one day could happen, I hope.”
House Republicans unveiled their plans for the budget Wednesday night and held legislative hearings on the proposals Thursday. Among those hearings was one before the Justice and Public Safety Appropriations Committee, where representatives from various related state agencies weighed in on the funding appropriations and legislators like John and Jones asked questions about the allocations.
Under the budget proposal Indigent Defense Services would receive $1,020,102 to establish a public defenders’ office to serve Bertie, Halifax, Hertford and Northampton counties; $763,247 to open an office to serve Johnston County; $925,723 to fund an office serving Brunswick County; and $1,071,211 to open an office to serve Alexander and Iredell counties.
All together, the new offices would be staffed by four public defenders, up to 38 assistant public defenders and up to 22 employees to provide support.
Roughly 40 of the state’s 100 counties have a public defender office. The others rely on court-appointed attorneys, who earn much less from the state than what they could charge as a private attorney. A joint investigation by The Assembly and the Border Belt Independent found that the number of lawyers willing to take on court-appointed cases has sharply declined since 2018, a problem especially acute in rural areas. The Office of Indigent Defense Services increased its assigned counsel pay rate last year for the first time since 2011, but that pay is still below the rate those lawyers were making more than a decade ago.
Under the House budget proposal, 46 counties would be served by public defenders’ offices. By law, Indigent Defense Services can recommend to the legislature that a regional or district public defenders’ office be established after they consult with the affected district bar, the senior resident superior court judge and the chief district court judge.
Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham), said legislators should make sure assistant district attorneys and assistant public defenders are paid the same, so prospective hires don’t choose one side or the other because one pays better.
“We want to keep, hopefully, some parity, because to keep the courtroom functioning you need both sides to be represented,” said Morey, who, like John and Jones, is also a former judge. “Just like if you have judges, you need clerks.”
The budget is not final. The governor released his own budget proposal earlier this month, and members of the Senate will weigh in with their own plan. The Republican-controlled General Assembly will negotiate over the state’s funding in the coming months.