Pubdate: Tue, 18 May 2010
Source: Star-News (Wilmington, NC)
Copyright: 2010 Wilmington Morning Star
Author: David Reynolds


DA's Office Seeks Funds From Wilmington to Keep Federal

A program that law enforcement officials say has targeted the area's
worst drug dealers for federal prosecution and helped ease crowding at
the New Hanover County jail will end either this year or next,
officials said.

At a Wilmington City Council work session on Monday, District Attorney
Ben David asked the city for $27,421 to help support the program for
one more year. Without the money, the program would end this summer,
David said, but even with the 25 percent local match, the upcoming
2010-11 fiscal year would be the last of local funding.

An e-mail David sent to City Manager Sterling Cheatham last week
underscores the program's importance.

"This level of aggressive prosecution is critical to reducing the
availability of illegal drugs in our community," David wrote. Since
2006, a federal grant has paid for most of the program that David said
targets the worst drug dealers for the tougher sentences of the
federal system. The original grant, awarded through the state, was for
a two-year period, but it has been extended.

The program has led to prosecutions of high-level dealers and had
ripple effects for the local justice system.

The mere threat of federal prosecution compels many defendants to
plead guilty in state court when they might otherwise risk a trial or
hold out for a better deal, David said.

In that way, the program has sent more defendants to the N.C.
Department of Correction quicker, and for longer sentences, David
said. In the memo to Cheatham, David said, getting defendants to state
prison more quickly means savings for local government. Local
taxpayers pay all of the $80 per-day cost of housing an inmate at the
New Hanover County jail, but once a defendant heads to the Department
of Correction, the cost is borne by the entire state.

In the program's first year, New Hanover County paid the local match,
so David said he is inclined to ask the city first this time. The
local match wasn't necessary in other years, he said. But now, without
it, David said, he would lose Assistant District Attorney Tom Old.

After the meeting, Mayor Bill Saffo said the program has been an
important crime-fighting tool. With funding issues at the state level,
North Carolina has a revolving-door system where many criminals come
out of prison and are more violent then when they went in.

Councilman Charlie Rivenbark said he doesn't oppose chipping in, but
he said the city would have to cut somewhere else to produce the
money. Also, he said, criminal prosecutions are traditionally a
function of the state. David said he intends to ask the county and the
beach town's to request some of the funding. Saffo said the council
will consider the issue at a budget workshop scheduled for May 24.
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