Originally in The News & Observer

May 30, 2018

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein broke down the state spending plan proposed for the coming year into three categories — "the good," "the bad" and "the ugly."

The Democrat and former Wake County state senator, like many in his party, was highly critical of the process that Republicans used to develop and consider the proposed $23.9 billion budget. In a departure from previous years, the 267-page budget developed behind closed doors will not be open to amendments.

That was not all that Stein described as ugly.

In February, Stein announced that a statewide inventory revealed 15,160 untested rape kits. That backlog prompted him to seek $2 million from lawmakers this year to begin the outsourcing of testing of 2,800 of those kits containing DNA samples and other evidence collected during medical procedures conducted after attacks.

"At the direction of the legislature, my office recently conducted a survey to determine the number of untested sexual assault kits sitting in local law enforcement offices," Stein said. ". . . I have asked the legislature for funding to test these kits and to develop a tracking system to ensure that we never get to this point again. The legislature did neither. This failure is irresponsible and unacceptable.”

The inventory was required as part of the 2017 state budget. The State Crime Lab contacted every law enforcement agency in the state to collect the data, and 92 percent responded.

 'We've cut the...office into the bone,' Attorney General tells lawmakers

Of those kits that had not been tested, 3,820 were not sent to the lab because investigations had shown the allegations of sexual assault to be unfounded. Another 2,741 were left untested because they were linked to cases that had been resolved in court.

But 7,545, nearly half, of those kits did not fall into either of those categories, a number that alarmed Joyful Heart Foundation, a nonprofit organization that tracks testing backlogs across the country. North Carolina has the highest reported number of untested rape kits in its current inventory, according to the group.

The collection of DNA samples and other physical evidence immediately after allegations of sexual assault can be emotionally difficult and grueling for victims. 

But the evidence gathered from the victim's body can help prosecutors building a criminal case. It can help identify unknown suspects if the DNA is entered into national databases and it can help clear the wrongly accused.

The average cost to test kits, Stein has said, is $700, putting the estimated cost for testing all kits at $10 million.

Earlier this month, two House Republicans — Rep. Ted Davis of New Hanover County and Rep. Jamie Boles of Moore County — introduced a bill that called for the creation of a statewide tracking system for new and backlogged sexual assault kits.

Republican Sens. Shirley B. Randleman of Wilkesboro and Norman Sanderson of Arapahoe introduced a similar bill in the Senate several days later.

Randleman said on Tuesday that her bill will set up a process to review the kits to determine which should be tested as well as develop a tracking system to keep the kits organized.

Stein had requested $170,000 to set up the tracking system of which $66,000 would be a recurring expense for the salary of the person selected to run the technology.

Randleman said the Senate bill, if adopted, "will get the process started. The money can follow next year."

After Stein's critique, Randleman and six other female Republican senators issued a statement blaming the attorney general's office under Stein's predecessor, now-Gov. Roy Cooper, for failing to address the backlog despite state funding.

"Under Democratic and Republican budgets dating back to the 2003-04 budget, state taxpayer money was set aside to test these rape kits," the senators said.

In 2004, North Carolina inventoried 6,200 kits that piled up before the state crime lab had enough funding to test rape kits in cases without a known suspect, according to the attorney general's office. It cleared the backlog by testing a few hundred and deeming most of them unfit for DNA analysis.

But the office says because there’s no legislation requiring that local law enforcement submit kits for testing, there’s not much it could do to prevent the backlog from piling up again.

A spokesman for Cooper responded that the Democratic governor's spending proposal included money for reducing the backlog, unlike lawmakers' budget.

"In contrast to the legislature which allocated no funding for this important effort, the Governor directed more than $2 million to the Department of Justice for testing sexual assault kits, including a way to track progress and determine criteria order for testing kits. Republican legislators are making misleading attacks to distract from the fact that their budget contained no funding for testing sexual assault kits," the spokesman, Ford Porter, said.

Stein, who saw $10 million cut from the state Department of Justice budget last year, requested other funds that lawmakers did not include in the spending plan released this week.

“Last year, the legislature gutted my Department’s budget with a last-minute, damaging $10 million cut," Stein said. "That cut required me to eliminate 45 positions — including attorneys who keep criminals behind bars, protect our environment, and go after deadbeat parents who don’t pay child support. Despite widespread support among law enforcement, the legislature failed to restore those cuts.”

But the attorney general found some things he liked in the proposed budget.

Scholarships for law enforcement

Earlier this year, Stein raised concerns about the number of law enforcement agencies across the state that have unfilled positions.

Since 2014, he said, the North Carolina Criminal Justice Training and Standards Commission has canceled more than 50 Basic Law Enforcement Training courses because of low enrollment.

"Fewer cadets entering law enforcement training means we have fewer new officers," Stein said. "At the same time, the challenges facing our communities resulting from the opioid epidemic, cybercrime, sexual assault, and other crimes are immense."

Stein praised lawmakers for authorizing the Criminal Justice Fellows Program.

As designed, in-state high school seniors can get community college loans that will be forgiven if the students pursue careers in law enforcement.

“While there is no funding currently allocated for this program, I look forward to working with the legislature to fund these fellowships next year," Stein said.

Transparency criticized

Legislative leaders announced last week that a small group of lawmakers would meet behind closed doors to hammer out the details of the state spending plan before offering it up for a vote as a conference report.

NC House Democratic leader Darren Jackson led a group of Democratic lawmakers criticizing the Republican's non-amendable budget proposal during a press conference at the General Assembly in Raleigh on May 29, 2018. Chris Seward

That means lawmakers will be able to give yes or no votes for the whole proposal. But the parliamentary process — one that has not been used in at least 30 years, if ever — does not allow for amendments.

One Republican lawmaker described it as "efficient" but acknowledged it's also a way to avoid contentious issues with the midterm elections approaching.

“This legislature demonstrated a contempt for transparency when spending North Carolinians’ money," Stein said. "The people of this state have a right to have their voices heard about how their tax dollars are spent. Unfortunately, this closed process prevented people from even knowing what is in the budget before it was finalized. This is simply no way to govern."