Courts and Law

Legal Services kiosks in the jails?

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Moving the State Bureau of Investigation from Attorney General to Department of Public Safety oversight may have been one of the lead stories coming out of the Senate budget released on Monday, but there’s several other head-scratching and fiscally short-sighted ideas tucked away in there.

Among them: slashing funding for North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, the group providing the often constitutionally-mandated legal assistance for some 37,000 inmates in state corrections facilities.

The Senate proposal calls for the elimination of the $2.89 million contract with Prisoner Legal Services, “in favor of prison legal terminals provided by Department of Public Safety.”

In his budget, Governor Pat McCrory reduced that contract by $231,000 “to reflect the decline in number of inmates” in the state.

Senators apparently believe that replacing Prisoner Legal Services attorneys and staff with new computers in jail libraries – and letting inmates represent themselves – would not only suffice to meet the state’s obligation to provide inmates with “meaningful access” to the courts but would also yield significant cost savings in the process.

According to NC Insider, Sen. Thom Goolsby, the co-chairman of the Justice and Public Safety Appropriations Committee, said he heard an inmate talking about how Prison Legal Services gave him an old, worn-out statute book to do research. “I thought there’s got to be a better way to give these guys what they need,” Goolsby said. “And what they need are the most up-to-date records so they can do their own research and represent themselves pro se. That’s what this is about.”  He added that the department could fund the needed computers and software from its existing budget.

But that’s an oversimplication of the provision of legal services to prisoners and an underestimate of the costs involved, attorneys and judges working in the system said.

“You can’t just plunk an inmate down in front of a computer and expect him to represent himself,” said Mary Pollard, the director of Prisoner Legal Services.

More than just legal research

Prisoner Legal Services receives more than 12,000 requests for assistance from inmates each year, according to Pollard. “The bread and butter of what we do is post-conviction work,” she said. “At the inmates’ request we review their convictions and their sentences for errors.  We identify a tremendous number of sentencing errors because of the complexity of the state structured sentencing scheme.”

They also review inmates’ proposals for litigation, at times explaining why cases lack merit and should not be pursued, Pollard added. “When they do proceed, we serve as sort of a clearinghouse for the courts, by vetting complaints and ‘saying yes, he needs a lawyer, or no, we’re not going to represent him.’”

The group provides an invaluable service for the courts, said Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Edgar B. Gregory in Wilkes County.

“Every Senior Resident Superior Court Judge in North Carolina spends a lot of time each month on ‘motions for appropriate relief’ which are filed by prisoners after their appellate process is complete, alleging some error or fact they’ve discovered,” Gregory said.  And the statute requires that, if a prisoner is indigent, convicted of a felony and serving jail time, he is entitled to an attorney, he added.

Gregory relies on the attorneys from Prisoner Legal Services to serve in that role, when not conflicted out, and appreciates their professionalism and expertise in the post-conviction area.

“You’d be surprised how few private attorneys want to do this type of work, or have the experience,” he said.

Those prisoners will still need assigned counsel if Prisoner Legal Services is no longer operating, and finding ready and willing attorneys is going to be difficult, Gregory added.

Tom Maher, executive director of the North Carolina Office of Indigent Defense Services agrees. “Without PLS, these people are still going to have to find lawyers. Post-conviction work is specialized, and you have to know what you’re doing, and those that can do it are not always willing to do it at the rates we’re paying.” And the state is still going to have to pay those lawyers, he added.

Maher also said that the vetting work PLS does in keeping frivolous filings out of the court should not be overlooked.  “Without PLS, that service is totally gone.”

No cost savings

Although Sen. Goolsby and others expect that the cut to PLS funding will generate cost savings for the state, the opposite is likely true.

The senators fail to recognize that PLS already saves the state nearly a million dollars in incarceration costs by identifying sentencing errors.  According to IDS, the group corrected jail credit errors (failing to credit an inmate for time served elsewhere, for example) totaling 13,319 days – more than a million dollars in savings when calculated at the most recent Department of Corrections daily cost of incarceration ($76.02 per day).

The group also saves the state incalculable time and dollar costs by keeping frivolous litigation out of the courts.

And the senators mistakenly assume that only computer costs will be incurred in implementing an “in-house” legal services system.

The experience of other states proves that wrong.  In Virginia, for example, inmate access to the courts is provided through law libraries and computer access to legal research software, plus law librarians and court appointed attorneys in all 38 prison facilities in the state.

Use of the research software has also proven to be expensive in other states. In Pennsylvania, for example, the legal publishing company Thomson West provides electronic library services at 28 prison units at an annual cost of $1.2 million.

At a minimum, North Carolina would have to fund electronic law libraries and provide library and legal staff in each of its 66 prison facilities.

“It’s probably going to cost $2 million for the electronic equipment, and they’re going to need staffing – you can’t just put a computer there,” Pollard said. “All states that have law libraries have librarians, paralegals, or unit attorneys. That’s particularly required for non-English speaking inmates and disabled inmates. And the directive that we be eliminated and DOC take over in 6 weeks is simply unrealistic.”

When asked about the Senate proposal, Department of Adult Corrections Commissioner David Guice said through his secretary that he supports the Governor’s budget, and could not comment further.

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