After significant delay, North Carolina has finally passed a budget. Yay! But the fine print of the budget actually has significant negative impacts to the public defender’s office. Boo!
While the new budget actually provides for a $4.4 million increase in funding for the Office of Indigent Defense Services (IDS), it also made a shift in reporting to the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). Why is this a problem? For many reasons.
Currently, the AOC oversees many aspects of the court system, including judges and prosecutors. Until now, IDS reported to a separate entity that ensured independence in decision making from those prosecutors. Makes sense, right? With this change, public defenders will lose some of their independence with AOC having some of the most important leverage there is – MONEY. One of the most important changes that comes along with this reporting shift is that the director of the AOC now has the ability to modify IDS’ budget without the approval of the board.
Hypothetically, that means that if IDS was doing too good of a job and winning too many cases, and the powers that be started putting pressure on AOC, the director could respond by cutting IDS budget to increase case loads, thereby minimizing efficiency and effectiveness. One would hope that this would never happen, but politics are politics, and it’s unreasonable to believe that there won’t be interference.
The result will be that public defenders will become more overworked, underpaid, and people may not get the representation they need, through no fault of the public defender. Start saving money if you ever need a criminal defense attorney, as there appear to be more reasons on the horizon for hiring a private lawyer.