Tough on crime?

Published 6:13 pm Friday, August 4, 2017

It’s easy not to pay attention to the news, if one is so inclined. Many complain about how negative the news tends to be; that it focuses too much on crime — violence, drug deals, arrests. At the same time, the news cycle offers residents the opportunity to see exactly how law enforcement is working to protect the communities they serve.

But curbing crime is not just about arrests. It’s also about what comes after: how that crime, and suspected criminal, is treated in the court system.

A few things have happened at the state level recently that could work to deter not crime, but the process that follows.

The North Carolina General Assembly’s $10 million budget cut to the North Carolina Justice Department has prompted state Attorney General Josh Stein to lay off 23 lawyers on the staff. The result is that local prosecutors in District Attorney’s offices across the state will have to take on additional work in a system that is already overloaded with cases, making the wheels of justice grind a much slower rate.

“The work that we do is protecting taxpayers. It’s about keeping prisoners behind bars and it’s about prosecuting criminals of serious crime. With these cuts, we will no longer be able to do that work as effectively,” Stein said in response to the budget cut.

On the opposing side of the process, the state’s legal aid programs were also targeted in the 2017-18 state budget: the budget eliminated setting aside $1.50 for each court fee filed in the state and “repealed the law distributing funds for general legal services,” according to an Associated Press article. Those legal aid agencies represent people in civil matters, in cases concerning situations such as unlawful evictions and government benefit withholding. A UNC Board of Governors also voted this week to ban courtroom work by the UNC Center for Civil Rights in Chapel Hill — past cases it’s represented include challenging school segregation and a landfill proposed in a poor community.

Questions arise from these choices made by these governing bodies. Why is the General Assembly wiling to further overburden the court system responsible for prosecuting crime? Is it right for legislators to hamper Stein’s office because, as has been stated, the majority doesn’t agree with his refusal to take up some cases and don’t like other initiatives he’s launched? Why is funding to help provide legal representation for the poor and disenfranchised disappearing?

Any government official will likely claim to be “tough on crime,” but these budget cuts turn that stance into nothing more than a political weapon. And who the victim is, versus the criminal, may just be shaping the concept of justice.