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DAs’ PowerPoint budget presentation piques defense lawyers

By SYLVIA ADCOCK, Staff Writer

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Lawyers at Indigent Defense Services, the agency that provides representation to criminal defendants who can’t afford attorneys, are fuming over claims by the state’s prosecutors that the prosecution is getting the short end of the stick when it comes to state funding.

The feud was sparked by a PowerPoint presentation given to legislators by the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys last month. During the presentation, the organization said legislators should consider sparing the district attorneys’ offices from budget cuts and look for savings in the office of Indigent Defense Services instead, saying prosecutors were “outspent” every day in court.

The IDS leadership heard about it from a defense attorney who was sitting in on the presentation.

“We were frustrated,” said Tom Maher, executive director of IDS. “Quite frankly the entire court system is underfunded.” Maher said he didn’t think it was productive for one part of the system to advocate cuts in another.

“They are making a huge deal about this,” countered Peg Dorer, director of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys. She said one slide in the presentation to legislators compared the budgets of DAs’ offices and the IDS. “The point was made that we have taken many cuts, and we should share the burden.”

The presentation prompted the IDS to put together its own report titled “A Comparison of Prosecution and Indigent Defense Resources.”

The slide in the prosecutors’ presentation that drew fire was labeled “Budget Comparison 2009-2010.” On one side, under District Attorneys, the slide noted that prosecutors handle 100 percent of all criminal cases and have a budget of $92 million. On the other side, the slide noted that IDS handles only 50 percent of all criminal cases, but has a larger budget of $132 million.

“Those facts are true but essentially meaningless,” Maher said. For one thing, IDS takes on cases such as appeals and civil cases that are not handled by local prosecutors, he said. The IDS report also notes that prosecutors use resources from other agencies, such as law enforcement, in their work. State money that goes to those other agencies is not included in the DAs’ budget numbers.

The IDS report also said that the amount of time that a DA has to spend prosecuting an individual case is not comparable to the amount of time a defense attorney has to spend defending it. A recent workload study of the state’s prosecutorial offices found that on average, DAs spend 43 minutes prosecuting a DWI and 55 minutes prosecuting a drug offense other than trafficking.

“It is simply not possible to provide a competent defense in such a short period, in part because defense attorneys have to conduct an independent investigation,” the IDS report said.

Dorer said she agreed that the IDS resources were used for more than just defending criminal cases at the trial level. But she also said, “We know there are plenty of lawyers since IDS came out that have gotten wealthy.”

And some prosecutors’ offices had experienced what she called “raiding” by local public defenders’ offices, which operate under IDS. When that happens, and an assistant district attorney leaves for the public defender’s office, many times the DA’s office also loses the position.

“It kind of puts everybody in a bad mood,” Dorer said.

She said the main thing her organization wants is budgetary independence. North Carolina is the only state in which prosecutors can’t control their own budgets, she said. Here, the state Administrative Office of the Courts doles out money from its budget to prosecutors. A bill, S. 478, has been introduced in the Legislature to change that.

Dorer said she also wants to see discovery laws changed so that prosecutors will not be “responsible for things they don’t know exist.” Another legislative priority is to repeal the Racial Justice Act or amend it so that it is based on something other than statistics.

Dorer said she didn’t expect the PowerPoint slides to spark a feud between the two groups of attorneys who routinely face off in court.

“The real reason we did the presentation was we had so many new legislators who didn’t even know what DAs did,” she said. “We talked about our roles and responsibilities.”

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