Local Politics

Budget cuts could delay justice for many

The state court system is running on about $450 million a year, or less than 2.4 percent of the state budget.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Over the last two years, more than 11 percent of the operating budget for the state court system has dried up.

The courts are now running on about $450 million a year, or less than 2.4 percent of the state budget.

"We've suffered through budget problems before. None lasted quite this long. It's sort of like sand blowing in your face. It's hard to get used to," Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said.

Judge John Smith, executive director of the state Administrative Office of the Courts, said court experts have recommended adding more than 1,000 court clerks and prosecutors to improve operations. Instead, he said, he's overseeing more than 80 job cuts throughout the system, and more than 250 vacancies won't be filled.

"It's the long-term impact and the cumulative impact that's beginning to wear on the court system," said Smith, who was a prosecutor, district judge and Superior Court judge before being appointed in January 2009 to overseeing court operations statewide.

"Justice delayed is justice denied. People are very aware of that, so the stress level begins to build," he said.

The cuts affect everything from child support cases to burglary charges to unpaid debts.

Technology is helping the courts cope with fewer people. The payNCticket.org website the state recently launched, for example, allows drivers to pay their traffic fines online.

Willoughby said the courts will have to cope with less money like the rest of state government, but he predicted that courthouse lines will grow longer as caseloads are spread among limited staff.

"Things won't happen quite so quickly as people like. Sometimes, service may not be as high level as people would like," he said.

With even deeper budget problems expected next year, Smith said he worries the situation will get worse. Ninety percent of the court system budget is salaries, he said, so future cuts will likely mean more job cuts.


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