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Eight new public defender districts funded in the budget — but legal deserts remain

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Eight new public defender districts funded in the budget — but legal deserts remain

Sep 28, 2023 | 6:00 am ET
By Kelan Lyons
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Eight new public defender districts funded in the budget — but legal deserts remain
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Slide from Mary Pollard's presentation to the Governor's Crime Commission showing that most of North Carolina's attorneys are based in a handful of North Carolina's counties.

In May, the head of the North Carolina Office of Indigent Defense Services told members of the Governor’s Crime Commission that almost half of the state’s 100 counties are “legal deserts,” meaning there was less than one lawyer for every 1,000 residents.

But the state budget could help with that, Mary Pollard told officials. At the time, the House and Senate had proposed their own, separate budgets. State representatives suggested funding public defenders’ offices in four districts. State senators, meanwhile, recommended opening six. Pollard said legislators should maximize the suggestions between the two budgets, taking two districts from the House budget that weren’t among the Senate’s proposals, so that eight new districts would be funded in total.

Lawmakers took Pollard’s advice with the budget they passed last week, appropriating money to create eight new public defender districts. They would be grouped as follows:

  • Public Defender District 5 will serve Duplin, Jones and Sampson counties
  • Public Defender District 7 will serve Bertie, Halifax, Hertford and Northampton counties
  • Public Defender District 13 will serve Johnston County
  • Public Defender District 15 will serve Blade, Brunswick and Columbus counties
  • Public Defender District 17 will serve Alamance County
  • Public Defender District 30 will serve Union County
  • Public Defender District 32 will serve Alexander and Iredell counties
  • Public Defender District 43 will serve Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties

The appropriations total $8,117,668 in the 2023-2024 Fiscal Year, and $17,210,351 in the 2024-2025 Fiscal Year. A lot of that money came from a reduction to the Private Assigned Counsel Fund, which pays private attorneys to take on the cases of people who don’t have the money to hire their own lawyers. Legislators reduced that fund by $4,750,058 in the 2023-2024 Fiscal Year, and $9,711,785 in the 2024-2025 Fiscal Year.

Roughly 40 of the state’s 100 counties are represented by a public defenders’ office. Thanks to the new budget, that number will increase to about 60.

The expansion of public defender offices will help most, but not all, of the most severe legal deserts in North Carolina, according to Pollard’s presentation earlier this year. Among those counties left out of the expansion were Hoke, Caldwell, Stokes, Greene, Warren, Martin, Tyrrell, Camden, Currituck and Perquimans, all of which have a ratio of between 0.19 and 0.68 lawyers per resident.

Pollard told the Crime Commission that her agency’s goal is to ensure there are public defender services available to all North Carolinians, no matter where they live, by the end of the decade. To do that, the state would need to open between eight and 10 public defender offices each biennium.

“We just need more funding,” Pollard said in May. “We’re just going to keep asking, and the more voices that can join our chorus, the better.”