McCrory seeks funding for drug courts

Mar. 20, 2013 @ 06:50 PM

Local officials are giving mixed reviews to a section of Gov. Pat McCrory’s state budget request that calls for a restoration of state funding for drug-treatment courts.

The governor’s budget envisions spending $3.3 million in fiscal 2013-14 and $3.7 million the following year on a program and 45 positions he said would “help break the cycle of addiction that adds to the cost” of the state’s mental-health-care system.

He also laid down a marker, saying he would “fight for this court in the legislature” as the state House and Senate work up their own versions of the budget.

McCrory’s proposal would undo a 2011 decision that saw the General Assembly eliminate state funding for a program critics said was benefiting only a few counties.

Durham and Orange as it happens were two of the counties where authorities were offering some non-violent drug offenders court-supervised treatment in lieu of potential jail time.

In both, county leaders responded to the 2011 decision by using local money to keep drug courts running, shouldering operational bills that add up to about $139,000 a year.

McCrory’s proposal to have the state resume support for drug courts is “a good start,” Durham Chief District Judge Marcia Morey said.

Funding them is “not what [legislators in 2011] considered to be an essential function of the courts, but many people believe this is essential and I’m glad that the governor has made it a priority,” she said.

Orange-Chatham Chief District Judge Joe Buckner likewise welcomed the news, but was quick to point out that court budgets are tight enough that cuts elsewhere could affect the willingness of prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges to support the effort.

“You can’t miss the fact that it’s all connected,” Buckner said. “If they reinstate drug courts and take away resources from the DA’s office, that’s going to be a problem.”

McCrory’s budget does in fact propose a within-the-courts money shuffle – though not one that targets prosecutors specifically – to fund gubernatorial priorities and other mandates.

Among other things, it asks the judicial system, overseen by the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, to absorb a $3.5 million-a-year, 62-position “voluntary reduction in force.”

Legislators in 2011 slashed court staffing heavily, ordering a reduction initially of about 303 jobs statewide. The cuts included 32 positions devoted to drug courts, along with a much-larger “voluntary reduction in force” than McCrory now suggests.

Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, co-chair of the Durham Crime Cabinet, said further reductions in court staffing are for her “a negative” when it comes to sizing up the governor’s proposal.

 “I don’t necessarily see fat in the judicial system,” Reckhow said. “If anything, staffing is quite lean, given the case loads.”

Buckner likewise noted that staffing affects decision-making throughout the court system, such as on the priority different types of offenses receive from authorities.

A shortage of magistrates has contributed to lower arrest rates in some parts of Chatham County, for example.

“In my mind, it’s all connected,” Buckner said. “You can get better posturing, but you can’t usually starve an organization into excellence. The DA’s office, I don’t see how it can get any thinner there.”

But Buckner also said judicial and county leaders embraced drug courts because the treatment option promises both a short-term reduction in the use of local jails and the chance of a longer-term reduction in crime.

The jail-cell angle has contributed locally to the willingness of county leaders to pick up the tab for drug courts, he added.

That’s because the state’s put pressure on counties by asking them to house people who receive short sentences, in lieu of bringing the inmates into the N.C. prison system.

That threatened to undermine local-level capital planning and sparked more interest in alternatives to putting people behind bars, Buckner said.

Simply by raising to 90 days the minimum sentence that merits assignment of a prisoner to the N.C. correctional system, the state handed down a “game changer” that exposed county jails to handling about “85 percent of the misdemeanor sentencing grid except for DWIs,” Buckner said.

Arguments about cost-shifting between state and local government are nothing new, however.

McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, attained statewide prominence in the early 2000s by helping organize opposition to former Gov. Mike Easley’s attempt to balance a recession-ravaged state budget by cutting revenue sharing with local governments.