More with less: With $3 million in the balance, initial AG cuts take effect

More with less: With $3 million in the balance, initial AG cuts take effect

Changes from a $7 million budget cut to the North Carolina Department of Justice went into effect September 1 and as expected, people are making do with less.

“The work is still getting done,” said Laura Brewer, spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, adding that employees are committed to doing the work and serving the public.

The General Assembly cut $10 million from the DOJ budget, which is operated by Attorney General Josh Stein. The cut wasn’t in either the initial Senate or House budget but was added at the last minute before a final vote was taken on the FY2018-19 budget.

It was unexpected and has been viewed by many as a partisan move because Stein is a Democrat. Stein has repeatedly refused to speculate about the political nature of the massive budget cut and has instead expressed grave concern for the safety of North Carolinians if he is forced to keep cutting.

He announced early last month that he had eliminated 45 DOJ positions and arranged for some “client” state agencies to agree to fund an additional 40 lawyer positions. That leaves about $3 million hanging in the balance.

“We’re still really hoping the legislature will take some kind of action,” Brewer said Monday.

Stein has asked lawmakers to restore the last $3 million they cut from the DOJ budget. Legislative leaders have not agreed to the request.

In the meantime, DOJ employees are left with fewer resources and district attorneys across the state will feel the impact of that.

Before September 1, DOJ attorneys handled all criminal appeals, the prosecution of complex or conflict cases and “motions for appropriate relief” (MARs). In a letter sent August 2 to the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, Stein said his office would no longer be able to handle all of those things.

District Attorneys across the state will now handle all criminal appeals stemming from probation revocations and any misdemeanor other than a driving under the influence charge. They may also be required to handle MARs on behalf of the state, and Stein said his office would be cutting back on handling the prosecution of complex or conflict cases.

Brewer said the AG’s Office handles roughly 30 non-DUI misdemeanor appeals each year, 15 probation violation appeals and 23 conflict and complex cases, though that can vary year to year.

“We are concerned about how it’s going to overall impact the caseload that we have,” said Wake County DA Lorrin Freeman. “Once we get a case to resolution, there’s another case right behind it that has to be addressed. Doing appeals will mean one less prosecutor to dedicate to other work.”

She said last month that her office was in the midst of having internal discussions and planning trainings. She expected the office to end up dedicating a number of assistants capable of handling the appeals caseload.

“It would be our hope that the legislature would recognize this cut and restore the funding in the interest of public safety,” Freeman added.

Other district attorneys were taking a “wait-and-see” approach before speculating about office changes due to the cuts.

“I really haven’t sat down to think about it,” said Ted Bell, DA for District 29A, which includes McDowell and Rutherford counties.

He said he hadn’t received official notice from the AG’s office but expected a chilling effect because of understaffing.

“I’m hoping it gets resolved before it gets implemented,” Bell said. “We don’t have anyone sitting around looking for work.”

Greg Newman, DA for Henderson County, said he expects some impact but didn’t know what to do since his office is already “sort of stretched to the limit as it is.” He added that his office is processing more cases than ever before.

“We don’t expect the number of appeals to go down,” he said.

Newman said he expects he will have to restructure the office to handle an appeals workload but tried to find a silver lining.

“The nice thing for us is that some people here are experienced in appellate work,” he said.

He added that he was concerned about the changes and felt like his office hadn’t been included in the discussion. He asked if district attorneys would be allocated more resources if they were being tasked with more work.

“If we have to do the appeals, we will,” Newman said. “It’s a lot of work; it is a lot of extra work. But it also comes with some benefits – [prosecutors] are closer to the cases.”

He questioned though how thoroughly such a cut to the AG’s office was thought out.

“A lot of decisions are made by people who are not close to the courts,” he added. “[I] don’t know if they understand.”

District attorneys won’t be the only ones affected by change from the cuts. Stein also sent letters to the North Carolina Sheriffs Association, Association of Chiefs of Police, Sheriffs Education and Training Standards Commission and Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission.

Some of the lawyers whose positions were eliminated were part of the Law Enforcement Liaison Section of the DOJ.

And the people most affected were those who lost their jobs. Gerald Robbins is one of those people.

“I don’t know what to expect,” Robbins said. “This wasn’t something that I had been considering, that I was not going to be working today.”

Robbins has worked at the AG’s office for more than two decades. He started out in the child support enforcement program, where he worked for 15 years. He also represented the Division of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and handled prisoner litigation.

He held a supervisory position when he was let go, overseeing about eight attorneys who handle clients including the Department of Health and Human Services.

“We were very fortunate because in my section, I was the only one who lost their job,” Robbins said.

He’s looking for a job but said his age made things more frustrating.

“I’m 60 years old. What’s the likelihood of me finding a job at my age?” he asked. “Who knows how it’s going to work out? There’s nothing you can do about it. All of a sudden, you have no control over your own life.”

Because the cuts weren’t announced until the last minute, Robbins didn’t see it coming. He, like many others, questioned the partisan nature of the cuts.

“I recognize the General Assembly and the legislative branch of government is entitled, and is required, to make the laws in the state of North Carolina, but because they’re upset with one branch of government, they withhold the ability of that branch of government to do its work?” he said. “That makes no sense to me. Because they’re upset, or because they have a different priority, if that prevents the executive branch from doing their job, then the citizenry in this state is not well served.”