Financial Strain Threatens Effectiveness of Criminal Court System

Austere Judicial Budget Leaves Much to Be Desired

In November of last year, North Carolina voters helped to pass a state constitutional amendment allowing criminal trials in Superior Court to be heard in front of a judge rather than only allowing the option of a jury of 12. Although I expressed some concerns about the implementation of such an initiative, I felt that overall it was a positive step to help increase courtroom efficiency. I also felt that any concerns over the bias of judges were easily alleviated by the fact that, regardless to changes in the state constitution, the U.S. Constitution entitles defendants in Superior Court to a trial by jury. However, the pool of funding that covers juror pay in N.C. is rapidly diminishing and is estimated to run out in early April.

Although it isn’t much, jurors are paid for their services in order to help offset the costs associated with serving on a jury. The pay rates for jurors are as follows: $12 for the first day, $20 a day for days two through five, and $40 a day for the sixth day and onward. If the court system should run out of money to pay jurors before the budget year ends on June 30th, court districts across North Carolina will have to grapple with how to handle the shortfall. Will the courts have to suspend jury trials until the funds are replenished? What will happen to juror pay for cases that are at trial when the money runs out? And exactly how much additional pressure will be placed on Superior Court defendants to seek a trial by judge, rather than a trial by jury?

More than half of the budget for the court system in North Carolina is funded by fines, fees, and court costs collected by the courts themselves. However, although some people may gripe that traffic tickets and citations for petty offenses are intended as a money-making tool for local court systems, in reality roughly 45% of the budget for the state court system is funded through the N.C. General Assembly. Even though in recent years there have been steady budget cuts as well as increases in court costs and filing fees, the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts would be unable to keep its head above water without the assistance of tax revenue. Potential detrimental effects to the practice of trial by jury is only one concern amongst many when I pause to contemplate the financial strain our court systems are currently under.

Consider the role of technology in the judicial system. Even though our phones seem to get smarter by the day, consumers have the ability to purchase home appliances that connect to the internet, and there really does seem to be an app for everything, many court systems are burdened with having to use outdated, and in some cases downright antiquated, software and hardware. As an example, I’d like to highlight the Automated Criminal Infractions System, or ACIS. ACIS is a database maintained by the Administrative Office of the Courts, and as the name suggests, is used to collect and store information about criminal cases across the State. Sounds useful, right? It can be, but ACIS has a number of severe limitations. The first is that the database only has records going back as far as the mid-to-late 1980s. This complicates the search for older outstanding cases, as well as making it difficult to file for expunctions and pardons in certain instances. Second, although the database contains information that is completely within the public record, it is generally only accessible to the public via dedicated terminals located at local courthouses. And finally, the ACIS user interface acts as a time-warp back to the early 1990s, when MS-DOS was king. The database is not user-friendly in the least, and it actually takes a certain amount of training to navigate through the program. Keep in mind, ACIS is not designed for a special, niche task that is rarely used outside of the courts – it is one of the main ways that the Administrative Office of the Courts keeps track of criminal cases.

Even though there has been a steady drop in the number of criminal cases filed in North Carolina for several years, the financial status of the court system seems to get a little worse every year. Budget cuts mean that need technological upgrades aren’t performed. Budget cuts mean that there is a genuine concern as to whether we as a state can afford to have trials by jury, one of our foundational Constitutional rights. Budget cuts mean that public defenders suffer under more crushing caseloads than ever before, and that court officials such as court reporters and clerks end up doing a tremendous amount of work for an embarrassingly small amount of pay. A financially strained court system is one where mistakes can be more easily made, and in criminal cases, mistakes can have devastating consequences. Changes need to be made – and soon – lest the quality of our justice system suffer any further than it already has.