Local Politics

Budget ax drops on prisons, youth centers

Posted June 3, 2009 11:49 a.m. EDT
Updated June 3, 2009 7:07 p.m. EDT

— As lawmakers struggle to balance the state budget, more programs are feeling the pinch.

On Tuesday, the House Subcommittee on Justice and Public Safety proposed slashing spending by the Department of Correction by $171 million and the Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention by $36 million – 21 percent of the department's budget.

"It is devastating," Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Secretary Linda Hayes said of the proposed cuts. "We cannot prevent (crime), do community programs, do all the treatment and education of kids in youth development centers given those cuts, and we have to do a good job or (the Department of) Correction will be building new prisons."

The proposals include eliminating the Center for the Prevention of School Violence, closing the Dobbs Youth Development Center in Kinston and the Samarkand Youth Development Center in Moore County and cutting 255 juvenile justice positions. Officials said new centers would replace the two that would be closed.

Hayes she was confused by how lawmakers decided to make some of the cuts, noting that a youth facility in Chatham County doesn't have enough space to handle all of the girls who would be transferred from Samarkand.

"We don't know where some of the cuts came from, and we just absolutely can't keep the public safe and the kids safe doing that," she said.

She said she was asked by the committee to cut $27 million from the budget and that the committee co-chairs agreed with her recommended cuts.

"Apparently, somewhere in the last eight hours it got changed," she said Wednesday morning.

Several committee members, including Rep. Alice Bordsen, D-Alamance, who presented the proposed budget, said they also didn't know the source of the late changes.

"That's a little bit of a prickly situation that I'd rather deal with in-house," Bordsen said, declining to comment further.

Some lawmakers said their hands are tied by a small group of more powerful House members.

"I don't feel like we're being heard as committee members in terms of what the cuts should be," said Rep. Annie Mobley, D-Hertford.

The budget plan, which the committee could vote on Thursday, also would cut 1,520 positions in the Department of Correction, close eight state prisons, reduce inmate litter crews and eliminate community service work crews.

The prisons slated for closure are Umstead Correctional, Guilford Correctional, Gates Correctional, Union Correctional, Haywood Correctional, Cleveland Correctional, McCain Correctional Hospital and the Wilmington Residential Facility for Women.

The moves will require some prisons, including Nash Correctional, to double up on inmates, and will shift Hoke Correctional from a medium- to a minimum-security prison.

"When you start double-bunking folks, they're going to be more hostile. They're going to be more hostile to the guards, going to create an environment (that's unhealthy) and, ultimately, we're probably going to have a lawsuit over it," said Rep. Ronnie Sutton, D-Robeson.

Other cuts include a 25 percent reduction in funding to the North Carolina Victims Assistance Network, which helps crime victims navigate the legal system and obtain compensation, and 15 percent from the state Division of Alcohol Law Enforcement.

“Our state spends on prison inmates, depending on their custody level, between $22,000 and $32,000 a year. Crime victims only get a pittance of that," said Tom Bennett, executive director of the victims assistance network. "The budget proposal would cut 25 percent of the small amount the state allocates to crime victims. I think that is a very poor choice.”

The proposals come one day after House members drew fire from advocacy groups for recommending slashing another $256 million from the Department of Health and Human Services. Those cuts would be on top of $1.4 billion in spending reductions proposed last week.

Dozens of nonprofit organizations and service providers said cutting the state budget alone would increase unemployment and delay the economic recovery, and they called on lawmakers to raise some taxes to help narrow a projected $4.6 billion budget gap.

North Carolina is one of the only states trying to balance its budget on cuts alone, according to the left-leaning North Carolina Justice Center. The other 12 states with deficits of at least 20 percent of their budgets are raising existing taxes or enacting new ones to help fund their shortfalls, the center said.

Overall, 16 states have approved new taxes for the next fiscal year, and 17 more have tax ideas on the table, according to the center.