JOSH STEIN: Cuts to AG's staff threaten law and order
Posted July 19
EDITOR’S NOTE: Josh Stein is North Carolina’s attorney general. He was elected in November 2016 and took office in January 2017.
It’s a story we have all heard before.
Late in the night, the legislature’s majority takes a secretive, last-minute action that will have a significant impact on a member of the opposite party.
The next morning, the news comes out and chaos erupts with both sides arguing their points in the media.
But this article isn’t about "House of Cards," a John Grisham novel or even politics in Washington, D.C.
This is about the North Carolina General Assembly’s last minute slashing of the North Carolina Department of Justice’s budget – a $10 million cut requiring the termination of dozens of public servants who keep us safe and protect taxpayers.
The legislature made this drastic cut at the last minute, with no open debate. The cut was not in the House budget. It was not in the Senate budget. It was inserted into the budget Conference Report at the last minute, published just before midnight, and voted on the next day.
Former state Supreme Court Justice Robert Orr, a Republican, recently wrote: “The draconian stripping of Democrat Attorney General Josh Stein’s budget with no debate or discussion is simply unacceptable. This kind of hardball politics doesn’t just ‘punish’ a political opponent but jeopardizes the critical work of the attorney general’s office.”
Here is what a $10 million cut to DOJ means to the people of our state in real life terms:
It will weaken DOJ’s ability to put and keep criminals behind bars. The DOJ will no longer have the resources to prosecute at trial the number of violent criminals it currently does. This will strain the resources of already overburdened local district attorneys.
It will impair the ability of the DOJ to handle criminal appeals, also affecting the safety of the public. Prisoners often appeal their cases trying to overturn their convictions.
Due to the General Assembly’s cuts, DOJ will lose some of their most experienced criminal appellate lawyers, overburdening the remaining ones and potentially pushing some cases back down to district attorneys. In these criminal appeals, the state simply will not be able to provide the same degree of attention nor apply the same level of expertise.
The General Assembly’s actions mean that some criminals may go free on technicalities. As a result, district attorneys, chiefs of police and sheriffs all opposed the cut urging the legislature to revisit it.
It threatens DOJ’s ability to properly and effectively handle frivolous and other lawsuits against the state. DOJ is currently handling 115 separate lawsuits with a total of more than $363 million in potential liability. Losing so many lawyers means that we will simply not be able to devote as many resources to each case. Inevitably, some results will be more adverse to the state than they otherwise would have been.
Ten million dollars is a huge portion of our budget, and it is inevitable that I will have to terminate many dedicated public servants. These are smart, talented, hardworking individuals who have devoted their careers to making our state a safer place. They are at the DOJ because they want to make things better for people.
I understand, appreciate and agree with those who want to see our government do more with less, be more efficient and cost-conscious. We should all strive to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. But this drastic cut won’t eliminate government waste. Quite simply, it will cost taxpayers more while making our state less safe.
The Republican leaders at the General Assembly can try to say that these cuts were not about politics. But you do not risk putting more criminals on the street or increasing the tax liability of law-abiding North Carolinians if your actual goal is to better serve the people. It makes no sense.
As Attorney General, protecting the people of North Carolina is my top priority, no matter my budget. I will do everything I can within the financial constraints I have to continue to protect the people of our state. The safety of our children, loved ones, parents and grandparents is too important to do otherwise.
That’s something I hope we all can agree on.