The decades-long, steady decline in Charlotte’s overall crime rate has been fractured this year by a spate of murders that make headlines and leave both law enforcement officials and the public asking “Why?” Unlike the drug trade-driven murder epidemic of the 1990s, this homicide spike has no clearly identifiable roots; the slayings occur in many parts of Charlotte and most stem from disputes that turn violent among people who know each other.
While it’s somewhat reassuring that most of the recent murders have been random events, those of us responsible for overseeing public safety are challenged to end the wave of senseless violence bringing tragedy to dozens of Charlotte families and neighborhoods. As our police officers will tell you, it’s an immense challenge.
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Moving forward, one of our greatest needs is to reform the overall criminal justice system to ensure that justice is fully served. That means violent criminals not returning too soon to the streets where they can repeat their offenses and disrupt fragile neighborhoods, and where those who want to get their lives on track have ample opportunity to do so.
We need a more inclusive and unified effort to improve collaboration across government agencies and to increase funding of not only law enforcement, but the courts, and social service systems, while setting policies that are interconnected throughout. A key roadblock is that our system is silo-ed with no overall accountability: The city funds police, Mecklenburg County covers the jail and sheriff’s office, and the state funds the District Attorney and court system.
North Carolina’s court system ranks 47th nationally in funding, operating with only 1 percent of the state’s tax revenue. Since 2008, essential operating funds have been slashed more than 40 percent. Programs proven nationwide to reduce repeat offenses – such as drug and family courts, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and life skills and job training – have been eliminated by the state, leaving counties to cover the need.
Most counties nationwide with a population of over 1 million have 100 prosecutors on staff. The state of North Carolina gives the Mecklenburg District Attorney only 58. The county (and to a lesser extent, the city) have stepped up to pay for another 27. The result of an anemic court system means Mecklenburg County hasn’t increased the number of criminal superior courtrooms in 25 years, causing a bottleneck for all felony cases.
While one third of the city’s operating budget goes to law enforcement, the ongoing struggle to address the city’s crime suggests we need to look at the system differently and holistically.
Almost a decade ago, a task force studied these issues and called for a permanent citizens advisory committee “to promote collaboration and coordination across all components of the criminal justice system.” It is high time we heeded that call. The people of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County must demand that city, county, and state officials craft and adequately fund a criminal justice system that serves justice for all, and makes this the safest city in America.
Julie Eiselt is a Charlotte City Council member and chairs the Council’s community safety committee.