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Proposed Cuts Take Big Swipe At Court System

Some lawmakers are suggesting deep cuts to North Carolina's court system as they look for ways to close a $2.4 billion budget gap. An appropriations subcommittee has released a line-item list of potential cuts that could threaten family court, drug-treatment courts and other programs. In fact, Mecklenburg County Trial Court Administrator Todd Nuccio says the proposals could lead to a "wholesale dismantling" of the court system. He spoke to WFAE's Mark Rumsey. Rumsey: Mr. Nuccio, you distributed an email outlining these state funding scenarios and, in that email, you also used terms like "draconian measures" and "crippling" the judicial branch. That's pretty strong language. What is your biggest concern here? Nuccio: Well, I think it comes down to the court's ability to protect public safety as well as to provide access to justice, and we provide fundamental core services to the community, and those are things that should be protected. Rumsey: Where, specifically, would the major cuts hit, under this budget scenario? Nuccio: Well, there are a number of areas that have been targeted. The ones that seem to come to the surface are the drug treatment courts, the family court, and our custody and visitation mediation program. Rumsey: And how would those programs, the drug court and the family court, for example - pretty well known programs - how would they be affected? Nuccio: Well, they would be completely eliminated. The elimination of our drug treatment courts would mean that those individuals that now have an alternative form of sentencing imposed on them would no longer have that option available to them. And when you no longer have those types of options, what you're forced to deal with is incarcerating folks or putting them back out into the community without having received the treatment and the care that's necessary to make them productive members of society again. Rumsey: Does a judge in a standard courtroom, if you will, not have those same kinds of sentencing options at his or her disposal? Nuccio: The difference here is the staff that surrounds the judge. The judge can impose different types of sentencing options; however, if drug treatment court is chosen, you need to have case managers, substance abuse treatment services available. If you eliminate the case managers, you eliminate the treatment services, then you eliminate drug court. Rumsey: In terms of programs like dispute resolution and custody mediation, what's at stake there? Nuccio: Under our current operations, any litigant that is seeking custody must proceed through custody mediation, and that program involves the mother and father sitting down with the custody mediator and try to resolve that particular dispute in a constructive and healthy manner. If you eliminate a program like custody mediation, what you're saying to folks is that we are going to provide you with a system that is going to be high conflict, and it's going to damage, in many respects, the relationships of the parties even further and harm the children who have to be part of that whole contested aspect of custody. Rumsey: Now, we are talking here about some worst-case scenarios in terms of what lawmakers could order in the way of cuts. We don't know yet whether that's going to happen. Correct? Nuccio: Right. These are cuts that have been identified by the Justice and Public Safety Appropriations Committee for review, and even with these cuts that have been identified, the Justice and Public Safety Appropriations Committee is still approximately fifty million dollars short of their target. Rumsey: Mecklenburg County Trial Court Administrator Todd Nuccio, thanks for talking with us. Nuccio: Thank you for having me.