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House subcommittee advances another “austerity” budget for Justice and Public Safety

[1]The House unveiled pieces of its budget Thursday morning at various appropriation committee meetings, and lawmakers wasted no time reading it and getting through the amendment process.

The Justice and Public Safety (JPS) budget [2] provides funding for four agencies: Department of Public Safety, Department of Justice, Indigent Defense Services and the Administrative Office of the Courts.

The House Appropriations Committee on JPS met from about 8:30 a.m. to about 2:30 p.m. with some breaks in between.

Deputy Majority Whip James Boles Jr [3]. (R-Moore), chairman of the committee, started the meeting by acknowledging that all the needs in the budget were not met.

It’s not what we all wanted but it’s a very good start,” he said.

Legislative staff went over the changes in each section of the budget and then lawmakers were given an hour to study and submit amendments. There were 10 amendments introduced, of which seven passed and three failed. Amendment sponsors and would be sponsors were greatly hampered, however, by a rule imposed on all subcommittees that forbids lawmakers from offering proposals to increase outlays unless they also include reductions in other programs. The rule forbids taking money from savings accounts, line items assigned to other subcommittees or raising fees and taxes.

The overall House budget for JPS in FY 2017-18 and FY 2018-19 is about $2.6 billion each year, with over $1.9 billion appropriated to the Department of Public Safety each year.

Cedric Johnson, Public Policy Analyst for the Budget and Tax Center at the North Carolina Justice Center, said the JPS House budget for fiscal year 2018 is notable more for what’s not included rather than what’s included.

The JPS reflects the austerity budgeting approach that state leaders have taken in recent years despite an improving economy,” he said. “Overall, the budget fails to seize upon opportunities to further promote safe and healthy communities across North Carolina.”

He highlighted four notable parts of the budget:

  1. Provides no additional state funding for indigent individuals to have access to private counsel representation. By contrast, the Governor’s recommended budget includes $2.9 million in state funding in the first year and an additional $2.6 million in the second year to increase compensation paid to private counsel representing indigent persons. Reduced rates in prior years have affected the courts’ ability to recruit and retain private counsel.
  1. Provides only a small amount of state funding, a total of $250,000, for an opioid pilot project with the City of Wilmington. The Governor’s recommended budget, by contrast, provides $2 million in one-time state funding for grants to local law enforcement to combat opioid abuse.
  1. No additional state funding provided for initiatives that support the Justice Reinvestment Act. The Governor’s budget includes a total of $4 million in state funding to continue the implementation of the Justice Reinvestment Act (JRA). The JRA was passed in 2011 in an effort to reduce state spending on corrections and to reinvest the savings in community programs that decrease crime and strengthen neighborhoods.
  1. Provides no additional state funding for services provided to offenders with mental illness. The Governor’s recommended budget provides $5.8 million in the first year and an additional $6.8 million in the second year to enhance services for mentally ill offenders, with the goal of decreasing the likelihood of post-release mental health challenges and associated costs.

Legislators during the meeting Thursday addressed two of the four of Johnson’s points. Rep. William Richardson [5] (D-Cumberland) introduced an amendment that would reduce funding for prison food and dietary supplies and divert the money to raise private counsel representation by $5 per hour.

Legislative staff told Richardson that the prison food funding is already short by over $2 million. When Rep. Charles Graham [6] (D-Robeson) asked what the state was feeding prisoners and if the menu could be changed to save money, the staff told him the budget to feed one inmate is a little over $3 per day.

Richardson told his peers that if they continued to ignore the problem of low pay for counsel representing indigent defendants, it would lead to a crisis.

Republicans encouraged the committee to vote against his amendment because they needed the money for prison food. The amendment failed.

I understand it’s feed the prisoners or feed the lawyers,” joked the Chairman Rep. Allen McNeill [6] (R-Moore, Randolph).

Graham and Rep. George Graham (D-Craven, Greene, Lenoir) both introduced amendments to the budget that would take a little money from funding for police body cameras and give it to reentry councils.

They said it was a way to invest in the JRA because the work of the councils helps reduce recidivism and keeps individuals in their communities. Both amendments failed.

Another debate between lawmakers in the meeting was whether or not to take money that had been allotted in the budget to outsource the testing of rape kits and divert it to the State Crime Lab to buy new equipment.

Rep. Sarah Stevens [7] (R-Surry, Wilkes) presented that amendment, along with support from Rep. Joe John [8] (D-Wake), and it passed 7-6.

They had both toured the State Crime Lab recently and said the equipment it was using is 16 years old, when the industry standard is about 5 years.

They also pointed out that the state attempted to do an inventory of all the unattended rape kits in the custody of local law enforcement and that not everyone participated, so the count was not accurate.

John presented an amendment that passed in the committee meeting that would require law enforcement agencies to take part in the next inventory and submit data by Jan. 1.

A representative from the Crime Lab also spoke at the meeting and said there were leftover funds from toxicology testing that would be put toward rape kit testing.

Rep. Rena Turner [9] (R-Iredell) and Rep. Mary Belk [10] (D-Mecklenburg) objected to the amendment and expressed concern that rape kits in the state would go untested because the General Assembly didn’t fund it.

Legislative staff said it costs about $1,000 per rape kit to test them.

Committee members did pass an amendment that Rep. Charles Graham presented that would create a State reentry Council Collaborative. The provision, though unfunded, will get all reentry stakeholders at one table.

Another amendment that was heavily debated but passed the committee was one that eliminates a provision in the budget that makes it harder for judges to waive court costs for indigent individuals. Rep. David Rogers [11] (R-Burke, Rutherford) introduced it.

The provision would require the courts to notify all agencies directly affected by the waiving of court fees at least 15 days before a hearing to give them an opportunity to appear – those entities would include a number of agencies depending on the crime, including the State Treasurer’s Office.

Rogers, John and Stevens argued that it would become a cumbersome process that could end up grinding the courts to a halt.

Opponents of the amendment argued that legislators needed to rein in judges who were waiving too many court costs – although data released by the AOC shows only about 8 percent of court fees are waived across the state in criminal cases.

The provision is included in the Senate budget, so there will be future negotiation.

The House expects to take up the budget bill in the full Appropriations Committee next Wednesday and give final approval to the measure on Thursday and Friday.