Reality Check: Judges worry bill could threaten future of specialty courts in NC

Buncombe County Veterans Treatment Court (Courtesy: WLOS)

During the course of a News 13 investigation, discussion in Raleigh about possible changes to how specialty treatment courts operate morphed into a proposed bill.

Judges fear that SB550 would make it impossible to operate a specialty court. Judges say those courts save tax payers money by keeping people out of jail, and getting them to contribute to the economy. Specialty courts also have lower recidivism rates than regular criminal courts.

Judge Marvin Pope presides over Veterans Treatment Court in Buncombe County. If veterans accused of non-violent crimes plead guilty and volunteer to participate, they can have their sentence suspended and receive treatment.

"It's more difficult to do this veteran treatment court than it is to go to prison," Pope said.

Buncombe County has one of four Veteran Treatments Courts in the state. That's a fact District Attorney Todd Williams is proud of.

"It's a model for where our broader justice system should go," Williams said.

Buncombe County also has a specialty court for repeat DWI offenders, which News 13 recently reported on. Sean Davis is a current participant.

"I just couldn't ask for more, you know? It's very good to enjoy life clean," he said.

SB550 strikes out the current specialty courts allowed in North Carolina and replaces them with something called a "judicially managed accountability and recovery court." Judges aren't sure what it is.

Buncombe County Senator Terry Van Duyn is on the senate judiciary committee. She is fighting to improve the bill. News 13 asked her how much change SB5550 proposes.

"It remains to be seen because there's not a lot of detail in the bill," Van Duyn said.

For clarity, senators referred News 13 to the Director of the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) Judge Marion Warren. The AOC director serves as a liaison between the judicial and legislative branches.

"The role of the director is to speak with one voice for the benefit of the judicial branch," Warren said in a 2016 edition of the North Carolina State Bar Journal.

Judges who spoke with News 13 worry about local control of the courts going to Raleigh. The bill requires AOC approval before a Judicially Managed Accountability and Recovery Court is established. Judges worry more when the proposal is considered with HB236. That bill proposes to add "practices and procedures" of all courts to the AOC director's duties.

News 13 made about a dozen requests to AOC to interview Warren about how the plan would change Buncombe County's courts. Spokesperson Sharon Gladwell wrote, "At this time, we do not know how this legislation will specifically impact Buncombe County's treatment courts until its program is measured against evidence-based best practices that will be established statewide."

Thirty-eight out of North Carolina's counties have specialty courts.

"The Judicial Branch wants to provide unified and uniform access to justice for all of its people," Gladwell added.

The bill doesn't guarantee specialty courts in every county, because it lets judicial districts choose if they want to set one up.

"We can't require the districts, because we don't have the money to put these courts in every community. It's not available," Republican Senator Jim Davis, of Macon County, said. Davis is one of the bill's primary sponsors.

Henderson County, right now, has no specialty courts.

"We have our hands full with just what our role is, which is to prosecute crimes. So, I hesitate and do resist any attempt to take us away from our central role," Henderson County DA Greg Newman said.

Newman said it's not the judicial branch's job to solve people's problems, but he doesn't believe there is an equal access issue, because DA's can cut their own deals.

The state created specialty courts in 1995. A 2011 annual report from the AOC praised specialty courts' effectiveness.

"After 15 years of operation, drug treatment court graduates are remaining drug and alcohol free, raising healthy children, participating in their communities, attending and completing school, working, paying taxes, and not recidivating," the report concluded.

2011 is the last of these reports because the state stopped funding specialty courts that year. Right now, Buncombe County's specialty courts get most of their funding from grants.

Senator Davis said he believes in treatment courts and doesn't want to abolish what works. He said the bill could be tweaked.

"The bill comes short in some areas, and we intend to address those areas," he said.

Senator Van Duyn said she's proposing an amendment to preserve Buncombe County's treatment courts.

"If we want to do a good job, we need to fund treatment," Van Duyn said.

Buncombe County's veterans treatment court started two years ago, and Superior Court Judge Marvin Pope recently graduated the court's first client. SB550 strikes out Superior Court judges from a committee required to create a Judicially Managed Accountability and Recovery Court.

It's unclear if that means specialty courts in superior court, like Veterans Treatment Court, would be outlawed.

When News 13 tried to learn more about the bill, people also referred us to Senator Shirley Randleman, a Wilkes County Republican and the Senate Judiciary Committee's Co-Chairman. News 13 made several requests to interview her over the phone. Randleman answered a list of questions via e-mail:

1. Should courts be involved in trying to help people recover? How would she rebut the argument it is cheaper to put somebody through a treatment court program for 18-24 months, than keep them in prison?
Yes, I agree and that’s why we have acted on the AOC’s recommendation to establish accountability and recovery courts throughout the state to reduce incidents of drug abuse, DWI, repeat offenses, etc.
2. What is the goal of Senate Bill 550?
The goal of SB550 is to establish a uniform system of judicially-managed recovery courts throughout the state of NC to address substance abuse and mental health, discourage repeat offenses, coordinate the use of resources, and encourage accountability.
3. Is there a problem it aims to address?
Rather than having a patchwork of different programs with no uniformity or measures of accountability, this legislation would create a uniform statewide system to address substance abuse and mental health, discourage repeat offenses, coordinate the use of resources, and encourage accountability.
4. Why isn’t the current system sufficient?
Please refer to my response to Question #3. We are trying to ensure recovery assistance to more people statewide.
5. Could current courts provide a model to be implemented statewide, rather than create a new model? If no, why not?
SB550 merely modifies existing state law at the request of The Administrative of the Courts which wants to ensure recovery assistance to more people statewide
6. What is a judicially managed accountability and recovery court?
Please refer to my answers to Questions #1 and #2.
7. How would they work?
8. Who would decide how they work?
The local recovery court committee would develop local guidelines and procedures consistent with State guideline and standards (developed by the State Advisory Committee) when establishing a court program.
9. What will be the result of section 4?
Rather than having a patchwork of different programs with no uniformity or measures of accountability, this legislation would create a uniform statewide system to address substance abuse and mental health, discourage repeat offenses, coordinate the use of resources, and encourage accountability.
10. Section 4 outlaw current specialty courts?
With the passage of this legislation, all judicial court programming under this Article would need to be in compliance with the changes made to Article 62.
11. If section four does not outlaw current specialty courts, how will the new judicially managed accountability and recovery courts be funded?
G.S. 7A-800 already addresses costs under a local treatment court program.
12. I am told AOC is supposed to work for the judges, and not the other way around. Does Sen. Randleman believe AOC needs more control over the courts?
I cannot speak to what you have been told.
13. What is the intent of section 5? Will it erase funding for any judicially managed accountability and recovery courts?
No, it merely makes clarifying and conforming changes to current law.
14. Why does section 7 strike out superior court? Does that mean the treatment courts cannot operate in superior court?
Since this was a bill proposed by The AOC, I will defer to them to explain this provision.
15. What is the aim of section 9? Treatment is a key component of treatment court. So why wouldn’t treatment be guaranteed in treatment court?
This appears to be conforming language. I will defer further explanation to The AOC.
16. Section 11-Was the last annual report made in 2011? If there are more current reports, can you please send them to me?
Inquiry and request for reports should be referred to the requesting agency (The AOC).
17. How will current treatment courts be affected by SB550?
Those judicial districts who have established programs would have to comply with standards, procedures and guidelines as developed by the State Judicially Managed Accountability and Recovery Court Advisory Committee.
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