Last Tuesday morning, the proposed state budget – written behind closed doors – landed on our desks. It was called for a vote in the state Senate that same afternoon.
Without anyone really having a chance to read it, it passed.
Out of a $23 billion budget, there’s always room to question priorities. That said, the cut to our state’s Department of Justice is particularly alarming. Among thousands of line items, this one deserves your full attention.
The cut was $10 million – a significant sum, but one whose impact is dramatically compounded by the fact that the budget directed that the funds come entirely from the DOJ’s legal and administrative staff, effectively a 35 percent cut to those items.
Bottom-line: If this budget becomes law, our attorney general, Josh Stein, will be forced to lay off approximately 123 of 254 legal and administrative personnel. That’s brutal.
And it came out of the blue. The cut wasn’t in either of the budgets previously passed by the state House or Senate. It first appeared in the final budget – the one no one had a chance to read.
Needless to say, the Department of Justice is not a superfluous group of government employees. They prosecute special criminal cases, handle all criminal appeals, preserve millions of taxpayer dollars by defending and pursuing civil claims on our behalf, and provide state and local officials with legal advice that affects law enforcement.
Losing a major percentage of its staff – including roughly one third of its attorneys – will dramatically impair the DOJ’s ability to perform these duties. For instance, the DOJ represents the state in approximately 650 criminal appeals each year. With the proposed cut, this responsibility could fall on the shoulders of local district attorneys.
Let me explain why that’s a problem.
As a former criminal prosecutor, it was my job to focus on jury trials. If the jury convicts, the baton passes to the DOJ and it’s their job to handle the appeal. Trial work and appellate work are very different skill sets – that’s why we separate them when it comes to criminal prosecution.
If this budget becomes law, our criminal prosecutors could be tasked with handling their own appeals – which, I don’t mind admitting, won’t exactly be a big win for Lady Justice. This is an area of law where specialization and experience really count.
It gets worse. Given that there was no indication that this type of cut was even being considered, there will be no time for an orderly transition of hundreds of cases. The results are as predictable as they are serious. Missed deadlines, defaults, court orders with truly negative consequences, and the imposition of unnecessary attorneys’ fees could all be in our very near future.
Not surprisingly, this move is strongly opposed by the organizations representing our police chiefs and our prosecutors. They know that nothing good can come from suddenly and aggressively reducing DOJ staff.
It’s worth noting that our attorney general does not share the same party affiliation as the leadership of the General Assembly, and that he beat their preferred candidate in last year’s election. Hard to imagine that their preferred candidate would be on the receiving end of such a brutal budget cut.
All budgets demand tough choices, but this is reckless indifference. It should be vetoed and fixed.
Jackson, a Democrat, represents Senate District 37 in Charlotte.