The General Assembly’s Joint Conference Committee released its version of the budget for the current fiscal year last night. The Conference Committee’s proposal will go to the House floor tomorrow. Amendments will not be permitted on the floor. In this edition of the budget there are some interesting changes that would change the way cases are tried every day in every county in the State. Most notably a number of class 1 and 2 misdemeanors will be reclassified as class 3 misdemeanors and infractions. The purpose of this move is to remove the requirement of the State to provide counsel to the indigent by changing the punishment to a monetary fine instead of possible incarceration. A summary of the proposal:
The Conference Committee’s Proposed Budget for IDS:
The Conference Committee’s budget contains the following changes for IDS:
3) Misdemeanor Reclassification: A $2 million recurring reduction (13% of IDS’ current spending on representation for misdemeanor and traffic defendants) from reclassifying a number of Class 1 and 2 misdemeanors as Class 3 misdemeanors and infractions. (See Sections 18B.14(a) through 18B.15(f).) The bill also modifies the sentencing grid to provide that a person who is convicted of a Class 3 misdemeanor and who has no more than three prior convictions shall be punished by a fine only, thus eliminating the right to counsel. It is not clear how a judge will know a defendant’s prior record level at the time he or she is determining entitlement to counsel, and IDS does not believe these changes will generate anywhere near $2 million in savings.
4) Administrative Adjustments: A $258,634 recurring reduction from elimination of 3.25 vacant positions at IDS and the Office of Special Counsel.
5) RFPs and Contracts: A special provision that again directs IDS to issue RFPs for contracts, but the language has been modified from the prior version. It now provides: “The Office of Indigent Defense Services shall issue a request for proposals from private law firms or not-for-profit legal representation organizations for the provision of all classes of legal cases for indigent clients in all judicial districts. The Office of Indigent Defense Services shall report on the issuance of this request for proposals to the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations by October 1, 2013. In cases where the proposed contract can provide representation services more efficiently than current costs and ensure that the quality of representation is sufficient to meet applicable constitutional and statutory standards, the Office of Indigent Defense Services shall use private assigned counsel funds to enter into contracts for this purpose. In selecting contracts, the Office of Indigent Defense Services shall consider the cost-effectiveness of the proposed contract. Disputes regarding the ability of the potential contractor to provide effective representation for clients served by the contract shall be determined by the senior resident superior court judge for the district.” (See Section 18A.4.)
6) Public Defender Conflicts: A new subsection (f1) to G.S. 7A-498.7 that states: “In cases in which a public defender determines that a conflict of interest exists in the office, whenever practical, rather than obtaining private assigned counsel to resolve the conflict, the public defender may request the appointment of an assistant public defender from another office of public defender in the region to resolve the conflict.” It further directs IDS to report to the Chairs of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Justice and Public Safety by October 1, 2013, and by October 1 of each year thereafter, about: 1) the number of conflicts of interest that arose in public defender offices during the prior fiscal year and the cost in PAC funds to resolve them; and 2) beginning with the October 1, 2014, report, the number of conflicts of interest resolved through the authorization in G.S. 7A-498.7(f1) during the prior fiscal year and the resulting savings in PAC funds. (See Section 18A.6.)
7) Appointment of Chief Public Defenders: Transfers authority to appoint chief public defenders from the IDS Commission back to the local senior resident superior court judges. (See Section 18A.5.)
8) Public Defender Case Management System: A directive that AOC and IDS each allocate $350,000 of funding to develop and implement a public defender component of AOC’s criminal case information system no later than February 1, 2015. (See Section 18B.10.)
9) Court Reporter Payments: A directive that IDS pay no more than 50% of the current per page rates for transcripts during the 2013-15 fiscal biennium.
The Conference Committee’s Proposed Budget for AOC:
The Conference Committee’s budget contains the following changes for AOC:
2) A $1 million recurring appropriation to restore 22 magistrate positions.
3) A $1 million recurring increase for interpreters, expert witnesses, and jury fees.
4) A $500,000 non-recurring appropriation to establish a fund to be administered by the Conference of District Attorneys to allow prosecutors to use local hospitals for toxicology services in DWI cases.
5) A directive that AOC study the most effective use of court reporters and report its findings and recommendations by February 1, 2014. For the current biennium, AOC is directed to pay no more than 50% of the current per page rates for transcripts.
The Conference Committee’s budget consolidates District Court and Prosecutorial Districts 6A and 6B. It also restructures Districts 16A and 20A such that Anson and Richmond counties will become part of District Court and Superior Court District 16A, but become a new prosecutorial District 16C. Finally, it moves Superior Court District 19D to the Fourth Judicial Division. (See Section 18B.22.)
The Conference Committee’s Proposed Budget for State Employees:
The Conference Committee’s budget does not contain any salary increase for state employees and reinstitutes the salary freeze.