For years, members of North Carolina’s judicial community have made a simple but profound plea: We need more money for more manpower. Without it, they’ve argued, justice is not merely delayed but impaired. Those protests have been largely ignored, however, and the consequences are being felt not only with strained N.C. courts and overworked prosecutors, but in dangerous outcomes for our cities and counties.
In Mecklenburg County, more than 20 homicide suspects since 2015 might have been incarcerated before their suspected murders had they been convicted of a previous gun crime, a Charlotte Observer investigation found. The investigation also found that Mecklenburg prosecutors dismiss almost 70 percent of weapons charges, a rate that’s higher than any urban N.C. county, and that Mecklenburg subsequently has more repeat gun suspects than any county in the state.
The reasons behind the alarming numbers vary. Prosecutors and lawmakers say North Carolina needs tougher gun laws and sentencing, the Observer reports, but prosecutors have underutilized a 2013 N.C. law that called for a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for some repeat gun offenders.
Mostly, however, the issue is money. North Carolina’s courts continue to be among the most underfunded in the country, a problem that is decades old but has gotten worse under Republicans in Raleigh. The state spends less per resident than any other state-funded system, and we are third to last in the number of judges per capita. Without more affluent N.C. counties supplementing the courts with millions of dollars — a luxury poorer N.C. counties don’t have — the crisis would be even more dire. “I think the crime is that the third co-equal branch of the government is funded with about 2.5 percent of the budget,” Senior Resident Superior Court Judge W. Robert Bell told the editorial board.
The result is a cascade of flawed justice. Gun suspects go free, committing more crimes and terrorizing communities until they are arrested again — further clogging the court infrastructure. Prosecutors are forced to set an artificially higher bar for pursuing gun convictions — otherwise, their schedules and the courts would be even more overwhelmed. Ultimately, our cities and our communities are less safe, as offenders are emboldened with the belief that the system will never catch up to them.
Certainly, there’s money out there for a fix. Just last month, N.C. Republicans crowed about a nearly $900 million budget surplus and attempted to pass a bill that would send it back to taypayers. But that money should be going where North Carolina needs it most — schools and roads and, especially, its courts. Without it, justice comes slowly — wasting money in incarceration costs — or not at all. “Basically, you are limited in the number of cases that can be processed by the resources that are assigned to do that,” Chief District Court Judge Regan A. Miller told the editorial board.
Some of the same N.C. Republicans haven’t hesitated to take political advantage of crime recently, pointing fingers at urban sheriffs who decline to hold possible criminals for federal immigration agents. Yet for years, judges and DAs ask for more resources that would keep repeat offenders off the streets of North Carolina. Their pleas are legitimate. The consequences are real.