Victims in North Carolina have been shortchanged for at least 10 years. It’s time to pay them what they’re owed.
That will prove difficult, given the mess of a computer system under which the Administrative Office of the Courts operates. But state officials dare not make the argument that gee, mistakes were made, but there’s nothing we can do about that now.
Yes, the budget is tighter than spandex on an elephant, but to deny victims the compensation they deserve for crimes committed against them is to victimize them twice. How could this happen?
In approving a 1996 amendment to the state constitution, North Carolinians demanded that victims be given consideration in our court system. For years the rights of defendants and the needs of the prosecution were the focus, while victims often were left out of the process.
One of the changes resulting from that amendment was a 1998 law giving victims first priority for any restitution paid by a convicted criminal. According to the bill’s sponsor, former Rep. Rick Eddins of Wake County, that was supposed to mean that victims are compensated even before probation offices and the courts themselves.
But in 1999, a lawyer for the AOC somehow interpreted the law to put victims at No. 3 on the list, after probation and court fees are paid. And in some cases, errors and other misinterpretations put victims were even lower in the pecking order.
And that’s how the system worked, or didn’t — that is, until the Raleigh News & Observer discovered and pointed out this egregious mistake. The newspaper painstakingly analyzed more than 240,000 cases — a fraction of the total; records are inaccessible for many of those years — and found that state and local governments were paid millions of dollars that should have gone to crime victims.
AOC Director John Smith, a former judge from Wilmington, wasn’t aware that was happening and said the mistake could and would be corrected immediately. Smith started his job in February. The buck stops with him; he should have known and taken corrective action sooner. But given the dinosaur of a computer system the courts are operating with, it’s par for the course.
The state’s budget crisis will make it difficult to update the 1980s-era system, but it should be a top priority. Previously funded efforts to bring this clunky system into the 21st century have been years behind schedule.
One of Smith’s charges was, and is, to use what resources are available to make improvements as quickly as possible.
This isn’t a matter of technology for technology’s sake. Old computer systems — and in terms of technology, 20 or 30 years is ancient — don’t allow the courts to do their jobs efficiently, and don’t allow the public free access to information that belongs to them.
It’s telling that the AOC says it has no idea how many victims have been denied just compensation because of the 1999 order and subsequent errors. The agency needs to find out, even if it means going through archived files by hand. Anything less would be a crime.