Nifong: Keep extra staffIf the figures Defendant Nifong presented to the Durham County Commissioners were similar to those he gave the News & Observer last month, his report again conveniently failed to note both the dramatic increase in pending felony cases over the second half of 2006 and the alarming rate of cases dismissed by his office. Reacting to last month's N&O article, we noted at the time:
District attorney points to reduced backlog of cases, asks for continued funding
District Attorney Mike Nifong had good news for county commissioners Monday, showing evidence that a recent staffing boost helped make a dent in a backlog of pending cases.
But the cases could pile up again, he said, if the courts lose funding for those new positions -- five court clerks and three assistant district attorneys the county agreed to pay for two years ago.
The number of cases pending in Durham's Superior Court has been reduced by more than 20 percent since the summer of 2005, according to records Nifong provided from the Administrative Office of the Courts.
But the progress was possible only because the county paid for the positions when the state wouldn't, said Nifong and Clerk of Superior Court Archie Smith, who appeared at a commissioners' work session Monday morning.
Curiously, the Administrative Office of the Court’s annual “Summary of North Carolina Trial Court Caseload” indicates that as of June 30, 2006 there were 1,872 felonies pending in Durham. If the N&O’s January 5, 2007 count of 2,134 felonies pending is accurate, the backlog of felony cases pending in Durham actually rose over the last seven months of Nifong’s term as hijacker of the Hoax despite having fallen (if Nifong’s April 2005 total is accurate) substantially in his first year as District Attorney..The News & Observer also fails to note that nearly half of all the cases disposed by the Durham County District Attorney’s office in the fiscal year ending June 2006 (not including traffic tickets for which no breakdown is available) were done so by dismissal. One might assume that dismissing cases at a rate higher (much higher, 44% to 35%, for matters in Superior Court and notably higher, 44% to 40%, for District Court cases) than the statewide average would be a means of reducing the backlog that should cause concern rather than the applause the N&O appears to offer.
"...the District Attorney's Office staff has grown tremendously: from 6 attorneys and 4 support personnel when I joined the office in 1978, to 17 attorneys and 17 support personnel under my predecessor, and to 20 attorneys [21 per Khanna's article as noted below] and 17 support personnel today..." -- Mike Nifong to the Independent WeeklyTwo years ago, Durham County authorized $300,000 to fund the newly created positions that Nifong credits for helping to reduce the backlog of unresolved felonies, misdemeanors, and traffic tickets facing his office. While the contracts approved by County Commissioners were intended to be temporary, DA Nifong pitched the need for the funding to continue:
"We are not just keeping our heads above water," Nifong said. "We are making real progress. But we need your help to continue to do that."Purposely or not, both Khanna’s article and Nifong’s boastful appeal failed to include two vital pieces of information for the commission's consideration. Neither provided figures showing the serious increase in outstanding felony cases over the last half of 2006 and the unusually high dismissal rates issuing from Nifong's office. Also, both ignored the fact that the NC Appropriations/Base Budget Committee is currently considering spending over $1.5 million to fund those same positions, plus six additional magistrates for Durham County, over the next two years. Instead, Khanna's article and Nifong’s pitch appeared to mislead its audience and prey on the fear that the State would ignore Durham County.
It's a sticky situation. Two years ago, when the county decided to use more than $300,000 of local money to hire the new employees, the contracts were temporary, said Ellen Reckhow, chairwoman of the board of commissioners.
"We didn't view this as permanent," Reckhow told Nifong and Smith.
A bill sponsored by State Senator Bob Atwater (D - Chatham, Durham, Lee Counties) on March 14, 2007, and immediately forwarded to the Appropriations/Base Budget Committee. seeks “to appropriate funds for an additional district court judge, three additional assistant district attorneys, six additional magistrates, and five additional Deputy Clerks.” If enacted, the proposed law would read:
How much the state will allocate to Durham's court system for the coming fiscal year has not yet been determined; it depends on the legislature, which has not yet adopted a budget.
Nifong also mentioned that he is concerned about the potential loss of more positions because grants that pay for two assistant district attorneys might not be renewed. He currently has 21 assistant district attorney positions.
Nifong implored commissioners to continue to pay for a two-person team that works at the county jail to identify misdemeanor inmates whose cases could be expedited to clear space at the jail.
“There is appropriated from the General Fund to the Judicial Department the sum of seven hundred seventy-nine thousand nine hundred three dollars ($779,903) for the 2007-2008 fiscal year and the sum of seven hundred twenty-seven thousand one hundred forty-nine dollars ($727,149) for the 2008-2009 fiscal year to fund the additional district court judge authorized for District Court District 14 by this act, the three additional assistant district attorneys authorized for Prosecutorial District 14 by this act, and five additional deputy clerks and six additional magistrates for Durham County.”While it remained unreported to the public that the $1,500,000+ was under consideration by the State at the time Nifong sought continuation of $300,000 in county funding for the same positions, it appears that Chairwoman Reckhow was hopeful that Defendant Nifong could help ensure the State would intervene.
"We need your help in getting those positions paid for by the state," Reckhow asked Nifong.Sadly, however, she asked the man who is the subject of two proposed bills [Bill to Remove DA, Bill to Suspend DA], aimed at making it easier to remove him from office, and who also faces a June trial over numerous NC Bar ethics charges, to help secure favors from the legislature.
"[State Senator Tony] Rand said the bill is not targeted at Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong, who has been accused by the State Bar of ethics violations for his conduct in the sexual assault case against three former Duke University lacrosse players. Still, a senator muttered "Nifong" when the bill came up for debate." N&O
"Legislators and area prosecutors said the bill, filed by state Sen. Dan Clodfelter, D-Mecklenburg, appears to be a response to the situation now unfolding in Durham, where District Attorney Mike Nifong is continuing to work while he prepares for a June 12 Bar hearing about his handling on the Duke lacrosse case.In light of the request to obvious persona non grata Nifong, we can only assume that Jim Black was not available to make the pitch on behalf of Durham County to the General Assembly.
"Rand said Friday that while the bill is "not exactly" a response toNifong's situation, he and other legislators believe prosecutors need more supervision." Snooze Room