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Settlement center budget slashed

By Susan Dickson
Staff Writer

This story is the third in a series about the real and potential effects to Orange County residents of state budget cuts. This week, we look at the local court system.

Each year in Orange County Criminal District Court, about 350 cases never make it to trial.
Instead, the cases are mediated by the staff of the Dispute Settlement Center (DSC), one of 20 community mediation centers serving 80 counties across North Carolina. But in this year’s state budget, funding for criminal district court mediation – $1.1 million statewide and about $60,000 for the DSC – was eliminated to help close a nearly $2.5 billion shortfall, and that service will no longer be available.

Frances Henderson, executive director of the DSC, said that criminal district court cases that her staff resolve typically include cases where there is a personal conflict and that might not need to go to court.

“It’s been a court service that has worked well for citizens. It enables us to work with a population that might not ordinarily come to us, but they clearly have some interpersonal things going on that are stressing them,” she said.

Founded in 1978, the DSC was the first community mediation center in North Carolina, and in 1999 the General Assembly approved legislation officially recognizing the work of the centers.

The legislation states: “The General Assembly finds that it is in the public interest to encourage the establishment of community mediation centers … to support the work of these centers in facilitating communication, understanding, reconciliation and settlement of conflicts in communities, courts and schools, and to promote the widest possible use of these centers by the courts and law enforcement officials across the State.”

It continues: “Each chief district court judge and district attorney shall encourage mediation for any criminal district court action pending in the district when the judge and district attorney determine that mediation is an appropriate alternative.”

The legislation approved this year cutting funding for mediation included a provision that centers could assess a $60 dispute resolution fee from the defendant for resolved cases, which the DSC said it will not do.

“That might sound good on first blush, but basically it sets up an unethical position for mediators to be in,” Henderson said, adding that it could encourage mediators to only accept cases that could be viewed as easy to resolve, or to push parties to settle their cases when they might not be ready to do so.

“This just plays hell with our ethics, so our center is not participating in this fee program, and that takes us out of court, because we can’t work for free,” she added.

District Attorney Jim Woodall agreed.

“I think when you resolve a case, you should do it because it’s the right thing to do, not because you can get a $60 fee,” he said. “I think, unfortunately, cases will get resolved that aren’t really resolved, just to get the money.”

“I don’t know who came up with that idea, but I don’t think they’ve spent much time in a court setting,” he added.

The center will continue to do community mediation cases that come directly to the center, Henderson said, but the courts provided a better avenue to reach a certain set of clients.
Because of the funding elimination – the $60,000 the center lost had been reduced from $85,000 the year before – the DSC had to lay off one of its six staff members, a person who had been with the center for 12 years. All told, the center lost about $80,000 in funding this year, or about 20 percent of its budget.

But the real loss, Henderson said, is the loss to the community.

“I see what a relief it is when people are able to sit down and mediate face to face. It’s very healing. It’s an enormous release of stress. I see the good that it does,” she said. “To not be in court offering that to that clientele is rough.”

Woodall said he and his staff will certainly miss the services the DSC provides.

“It was just always nice to have the Dispute Settlement Center available, because on any given court day there were always a number of cases that they had the ability to mediate and normally get a better outcome than you could in the courtroom,” he said.

“A lot of times in court a dispute may be settled to one side’s satisfaction, but not to both. … What [residents] are going to miss out on is that resolution where both sides get some satisfaction.”

And, unfortunately, with 200 to 250 cases a day, Woodall and his staff don’t have time to do the mediating.

“A lot of things come into district court that we all, everyone who works in the district court, feel like shouldn’t be in a court setting,” he said. “We work real hard trying to have those things not result in a criminal conviction.”

For example, cases involving injury to personal property can often be resolved with one party replacing or paying for the property, he said.

“Without the Dispute Settlement Center mediating, some of those cases will end up in convictions for a person that wouldn’t have been a conviction otherwise,” Woodall said.

The bigger picture
Woodall said the loss of mediation coupled with other cuts in the court system will take a toll on his office and others.

“We’ve lost a series of resources,” he said, noting that his office had to lay off assistant district attorneys as well as support staff, and the clerk of court also lost staffing. In Woodall’s office, non-lawyer staff was reduced by 20 percent, while attorney staff was reduced 10 percent.

“There is no way to take up the slack,” he said. “Down in our Chatham office now, there are some times when we just don’t have enough staff to answer the phone.”

Despite the changes, Woodall believes there won’t be a sustained backlog of cases.

“I think what might happen is, at the end of the day, where we would normally get through all the trials … they’re going to probably be some of those cases that get bumped over to another day,” he said. “That means people have to come back to court another day – witnesses and defendants and victims.”

Woodall said he understands that in a tight budget, reductions must be made in certain areas so that core programs can be protected.

But this year, his office lost two domestic-violence victim legal assistants.

“I think we’re cutting into the core programs now,” he said.

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