Wineka column: Courts designed for justice, not efficiency
It’s sort of cool when Salisbury is host to people across the state. We show off our downtown and the neighboring residential historic districts.
We feed them barbecue and Cheerwine.
If they happen to convene at the Salisbury depot, which they often do, the delays for passing freight trains just add to the small-town ambiance.
Something we’re rightly proud of.
A bunch of important people from across North Carolina converged on the depot Friday for a public safety summit organized by the N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition.
The grand waiting room was filled with mayors, district attorneys, police chiefs and judges.
Gov. Bev Perdue stopped by for a luncheon address. She offered encouraging words on the economy, in that the state possibly has bottomed out at 11 percent unemployment and brighter days might return
Perdue said we have to be ready for the recovery with jobs and a better educated and trained workforce.
Attorney General Roy Cooper spoke in the morning, telling summit participants that past investments in law enforcement and tougher sentencing have paid dividends.
While the state’s population has increased by 20 percent, overall crime has gone down 14 percent, Cooper said.
But for me, the most interesting comments came from John W. Smith II, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, and Peter Gilchrist, the Mecklenburg County district attorney.
The summit focused specifically on gangs and courts. I attended the program thinking the Mayors Coalition might have an answer for making the court system more efficient.
Ever since I can remember, citizens have questioned why there always seemed to be such a backlog of cases. Why does justice, which is supposed to be blind, also wear weighted boots?
I guess I’ve wondered the same thing.
Some answers came Friday before the barbecue was even served.
First, there’s a funding issue. The judicial system ó a precious asset, for sure ó has always been underfunded.
Smith said it’s been that way since he started in 1972, and I think he’s right. When has it ever been a high priority ó something you hear about in political campaigns ó to increase funding for the courts?
Smith has spent his first seven months on the job just trying to have the 7,000-employee N.C. court system tread water financially. At the beginning of the year, he faced having to make 300 layoffs and reducing the court system’s budget by $78 million.
Besides people, many important programs, such as drug courts and family courts, were on the chopping block.
Smith weathered some of the storm through heavy lobbying in the Legislature, with the help of DAs, judges, the business community and bar associations.
He also quit filling vacancies, even though those positions are needed to make a dent in backlogged cases. Now the state court system has 270 frozen positions needing to be filled, just to return things to a level that was inadequate before.
In the end, the state budget required the elimination of 47 positions and the loss of $30 million (a 6.1 percent cut). “We can handle these things,” Smith said.
But he still worries about the loss of support programs in local communities ó the kind of programs that solve problems and give judges an alternative for turning a young offender’s life around instead of sending him to jail.
“A judge sitting on the bench does not sit alone,” Smith said.
Smith also gave some alarming numbers 3 million court cases in North Carolina and 300 judges. Each judge in North Carolina is theoretically handling 10,000 cases?
No wonder there’s a backlog.
The trouble ó I would say the beauty ó of our court system is that it’s a retail business. Each case has to be handled one by one, no matter the offense.
Gilchrist said something I think will always stick with me. The court system, he noted, was never designed to be efficient. It was designed to produce justice.
Think about how things work. Someone is charged with a crime. If he can’t afford an attorney, taxpayers pay for one to defend him.
That attorney does the best job he can for his client, and he’s under no obligation ó in fact, it might be counter to his client’s best interests ó to have the case handled quickly.
The attorney’s job is to make sure the impact of the criminal justice system on his client is minimized as much as possible.
It’s an adversarial system, Gilchrist reminded me, and that’s the way it has to be for justice to be served.
Smith acknowledged that treading water isn’t a strategy for making our N.C. court system better. It will take cities and counties investing local taxpayer money to help address some of the technology, personnel and program needs ó and that won’t be very palatable.
But I left Friday’s summit with more patience for the judicial system. If I were ever on trial, I would want things to be right, not necessarily fast.