“If we are to right the ship, the Judicial Branch will need sufficient investment from this General Assembly to ensure that we adequately fund the basic operations of the court system… . If we cannot pay for these basic services, we cannot conduct timely trials. We all know that justice delayed is justice denied.”
These comments were delivered by North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin on March 4, 2015 during the first “State of the Judiciary” address to the North Carolina General Assembly in 14 years. The Chief Justice was referring to years of cuts to the Administrative Office of the Courts and he sought increased funding to make sure the judiciary could function at full capacity and resolve cases quickly and appropriately.
While the Chief Justice accurately laid out the critical needs of North Carolina’s court system in 2015, he could not even begin to address the dire needs within the rest of the justice system during his speech. As recently as last month, Commissioner David Guice, head of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice within the Department of Public Safety, spoke publicly regarding the mental health crisis in our prisons. Commissioner Guice told Raleigh’s News and Observer that “Emergency rooms, jails, and prisons have become the de facto mental health hospitals,” and said he was calling on lawmakers to provide more funding for treatment for mental illness within prisons. Commissioner Guice understands that in most cases, those behind bars are eventually released and everyone would be safer if their mental health concerns could be addressed in prison.
Some of the top administrators of the criminal justice system have made the needs of the system plain, but instead of addressing these needs in the budget, the Senate is moving forward with a proposed constitutional amendment to cap the income tax rate at 5.5%. The Senate’s plan would embed this cap in the state Constitution, requiring a two-thirds majority vote to increase the income tax rate in the future. It will cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in essential revenue and have a crippling impact on the criminal justice system, making it difficult for future legislators to reverse the damage done by past cuts and adequately fund things like basic court operations and mental health services for currently incarcerated people.
In other words, despite Department of Public Safety officials and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court making plain the needs for increased funding, the Senate is moving forward with a plan that would ensure no funding increases in current or future years. The legislation is scheduled for a floor vote today.
Neither Commissioner Guice, nor Chief Justice Martin brought up the very real fact that without adequate investments from the legislature, much of the current system is supported by user fees – i.e. court costs and fees associated with conducting a trial. Court costs and fees applied to criminal defendants have quadrupled over the past 20 years, meaning that defendants charged with even minor crimes can accrue hundreds or even thousands of dollars of debt before their case is resolved. These fees are difficult to pay with a criminal record hanging over one’s head, and without adequate funding for the court system, they are likely to continue to rise and negatively affect hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians.
We also haven’t even begun to address the fact that North Carolina is one of only two states that automatically treat all 16 and 17 year olds as adults for purposes of charging, trying and detaining them in the adult criminal justice system, no matter the crime. Removing 16 and 17 year olds from adult corrections and placing them in juvenile court is a concept with wide bipartisan support, most recently recommended by the Governor’s Task Force on Mental Health and Substance Abuse, but this change will also require an initial investment by the state – an investment that would be next-to-impossible if the legislature approves this tax cap.
Instead of considering ways to increase revenue and address fully funding and reforming the criminal justice system, the Senate is moving forward with a plan that will tie the hands of future legislators and cost the state millions in revenue. Tragically, such a move makes clear that the Senate has no problem with delaying or denying justice to thousands upon thousands of North Carolinians.
Sarah Preston is the Policy Director for the ACLU of North Carolina.