NC juvenile justice officials warn of 'devastating' budget cuts

Posted May 30, 2011 6:43 p.m. EDT
Updated May 31, 2011 6:07 a.m. EDT

NC Department of Juvenile Justice sign

— As North Carolina lawmakers continue to figure out how to deal with a $2.5 billion state budget shortfall, leaders in the Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention say they are facing serious cuts that could prove devastating to the state's criminal justice system.

The House spending plan would cut $15.4 million and eliminate 275 jobs from the department, while the proposed Senate version cuts $15.6 million and 278 jobs. The governor's budget, meanwhile, cuts just over $10 million from the system along with 59 jobs.

The Senate will discuss the budget during a session set to begin at noon Tuesday. Watch it LIVE on WRAL.com. 

In addition to potentially hundreds of job losses, juvenile justice Secretary Linda Hayes says that means fewer beds, facility closures and cuts to education and prevention programs that will be dangerous for young offenders and the community.

"We're going to have to say to judges, 'Judges, we can't commit any more kids,'" she said. "These kids are kids at the end of the line. They need support and resources. They need to learn how to read. This is setting us up for the criminal justice system to have total disaster."

Senate budget writer Sen. Neal Hunt, R-Wake, says he is confident that lawmakers will propose smart cuts to the juvenile justice system.

"The (young people) that need to be there will be there. The ones that are there will be treated properly," he said. "We'll take care of our young people, no matter what."

But some who work in the juvenile court system on a daily basis have their doubts and are worried about the potential effects of what they see as being drastic budget cuts.

"That's not possible," said Chief District Judge Marcia Morey, who presides in Durham County. "I invite any lawmaker to come in, sit and watch a court session."

According to a department annual report, the juvenile court system received more than 37,500 complaints statewide in 2010. Of those, 9,000 were violent and serious in nature.

"The types of cases we hear in juvenile court include murder, armed robbery, carjacking, felony assaults, minors in possession of handguns and shotguns, burglary and sex offenses," Morey said. "This is not kiddie court."

Provisions in both the House and Senate budgets would eliminate 39 court counselors and eight chief counselors across the state – workers assigned to monitor juvenile offenders and advocate for services in the community.

By eliminating the positions, the state would save nearly $2 million each fiscal year for the next two years.

"I just don't know how we can operate efficiently or effectively. My fear is that juvenile crime will go up and that these kids will not be supervised," Morey said.

"It's vital to keep close supervision, monitor these kids and get the resources, because they're all coming back in the community," she added.

Hunt said he understands the concerns but that cuts have to be made.

"I've probably got 5,000 to 10,000 petitions to not cut a particular program. I've yet to get one saying we'll help by taking a little cut," he said. "It's just human nature to want to protect your turf."

"I'm not saying the need is not there. In many cases it is," he added. "Ultimately, there are cuts that have to be made."