Crowding, Finances May Bring Sentencing Changes

Legislators have been nervous to tinker with the method North Carolina has used since 1995 to determine the sentences of convicted felons.

Changes proposed seven years ago to the General Assembly by a state agency had largely gathered dust. Bills based on the panel's work often died when opposition surfaced.

"If you mentioned anything, a finger was pointed at you as being soft on crime," said Rep. Phil Haire, D-Jackson, a longtime sentencing reform proponent.

However, it appears a majority of lawmakers may be willing as early as this week to make changes that would lower some potential sentences or keep more second-time offenders on probation.

Legislators are responding to recent warnings about inmate overcrowding, the sticker shock for building new prisons and the state's fiscal crisis.

Two bills stemming from a 2002 state sentencing commission report narrowly passed the Senate three weeks ago and were recommended by a House committee last week. They would become the most significant sentencing changes to date if they become law.

Their passage could reduce the need for more than 2,100 prison beds by 2020, saving money because the Department of Correction says it costs about $28,000 a year to house the average prisoner.

It also might build momentum for broader sentencing changes to divert more convicts to substance abuse treatment and more intensive probation.

"Sometimes these issues take many years to discuss and to really ferment," said Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, the chief sponsor of both bills. "What we are able to show is that public safety is not compromised, but we actually are making a savings to the state in the number of prison beds, which has grown alarmingly."

North Carolina judges hand out punishments through what's called structured sentencing. It was designed to ensure criminals served the entire sentence they receive and that offenders with similar criminal histories get uniform punishments.

Judges use a grid – something akin to a mileage chart in an atlas – that gives a range of minimum and maximum time that convicted offenders are required to serve. Sentences increase or decrease based on the offender's previous convictions and aggravating and mitigating factors.

For example, a judge must sentence a person convicted of armed robbery to 51 to 64 months in prison if the offender has an otherwise clean record. But that offender gets from 117 to 146 months if previously convicted of two similar felonies and there were aggravating circumstances.

When the sentencing grid was finalized in 1994, active prison sentences for the highest-grade felonies were lengthened beyond what was originally approved, said Susan Katzenelson, executive director of the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission.

The panel suggested the longer felony sentences could be rolled back in a report asked for by the Legislature in 2001 after projections the state would need 7,600 additional beds by the end of the decade. The idea got little traction. Lawmakers decided to find additional beds by building new prisons.

The bill picked up steam this year as tax collections dwindled and the state prison population reached 41,000, or 1,000 over capacity. That amount could rise to almost 7,500 by 2018, according to the commission.

The grid change proposal would make some sentences shorter. In the biggest change, someone with a long rap sheet convicted of first-degree kidnapping could receive a maximum sentence of 182 months, compared to the current 210 months. But many sentence ranges for lower-grade felonies would remain the same or go up by a month. A commission analysis found the average felony sentence would reduce overall by about two months.

The bills that passed the Senate are supported by two traditional law-and-order organizations: the North Carolina Sheriffs Association and the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys.

Sometimes "you have to do things that don't sound the best, but really it will free up beds and won't have a real appreciable impact on public safety," conference executive director Peg Dorer said.

A former sheriff, state Rep. Joe Kiser of Lincoln County, used to be the chief opponent of the changes, but he retired from the House last year. Bail bondsman and first-term Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, could become Kiser's successor on the issue.

"I am concerned about reducing the sentences," said Burr, who voted against the two bills in the House Judiciary Committee last week. Because suspects often plead guilty to lesser counts compared with what they were charged, they "aren't getting the time for the crimes that they were accused to have done," he said.

Burke County Rep. Hugh Blackwell, another first-term Republican on the panel, was willing to vote for the bills but first wanted assurances the state would examine closely ways to reduce recidivism. Kinnaird said a committee would look at that issue this fall.

"I hope we won't lose the commitment to follow up on that type of approach," Blackwell said. "My strong sense is that this bill is driven more by saving money than it is mathematical proportionality in the grid."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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  • by kathy Location: raleigh on Aug 28, 2009 at 11:36 PM
    You people are inhuman, there are people in prison violent and non-violent that are not even guilty of a crimes. All of them are human regardless, we all make mistakes. I wonder if any of you would make these comments if you or your kids were locked up in a place where people are treated like animals. I agree with some of your comments, but I am reminded that it could be me or my kids locked up. Offering classes prepare those with potential to come out and better themselves so they won't have to steal to survive. They can't get a job because people like yourselves can't forget that they make a mistake even though they have served time for it. What do you expect them to do?
  • by laura Location: Raleigh on Aug 16, 2009 at 11:31 PM
    We need a change. No one wants violent criminals out early. There should be a structured sentencing for people who cause harm to themselves or others. The rapist, murderers, sex offenders, etc. Death penalty...then follow through, not death row for 15 yrs. Non serious drug related and bad checks things like this are draining the system. Inmates with these type charges should be 1st to all education prog, being majority of prisoners going in are young, financially poor, and uneducated. Punishment is needed and serious. Knowledge is the key. For non violent charges we don't need long jail sentences you're not teaching a lesson you're teaching a new way of life and that isn't what you want walking out of those doors. I just feel that the chances of these people after education would be less likely to repeat crimes, through education they have a chance at a real life to be able to provide for themselves and families.....legally.
  • by Jim Location: Raleigh on Aug 3, 2009 at 11:58 AM
    Just let them all out of prison....every stinking one of them, you filthy maggots in Raleigh. Jim Hunt's Fair Sentencing and then, Structured Sentencing, is a wonderful legacy of FAILURE. Very few criminals come out of prison rehabilitated. In fact, the news has been filled with "habitual felons" committing more crimes recently. But, let a lot of them go free...tell you what...I'd rather shut down the entire public school system (including cothe entire UNC system) first. Out of school kids aren't going to rape, rob, and murder....
  • by Wanda Location: Kenansville on Aug 3, 2009 at 10:20 AM
    Sadden within the system. The inmates need to participate in ALL mandatory programs that will help them to become better people. At this point, it's a travesty for law abiding citizens to fathom the idea of release without a solution of protection. DOC are you ready for this BRACE.
  • by J Location: Gville on Aug 3, 2009 at 05:05 AM
    Or we could just stop giving them comfortable beds to sleep onand hook them up with bunk beds or sleeping bags. Pack them in there.
  • by JJ Location: Greenville on Aug 2, 2009 at 11:32 PM
    The books dont need to be adjusted to save money, it is simple...they are in prison cut out the TV, Cable, Pool Tables and Weights, Basket Ball courts, College Classes, Drinks, Hot Water...That will save money, All they need is a place to sleep and water to drink, small court yard to stretch legs..THE GUYS IN IRAQ SERVING OUR COUNTRY HAS IT WORSE THAN CRIMINALS IN PRISION, How do I know? I Have served in IRAQ twice so far. One good way to reduce numbers to be housed in prison is the death sentence....If someone kills someone it is only right to kill them. This country has got weak and stupid. Our laws are weak and not enforced, go to other countries, I dont dare spit on the side walk, they mean business. I bet many americans isnt going to others countries still car radios, they will cain your butt. Remember the mid 90's. We spend too much tax money supporting people who is too lazy to work, If a person really wants to work they can find a job. Thats a FACT. Obama bad decision
  • by Officer1 Location: NC on Aug 2, 2009 at 06:51 PM
    It is amazing! Probation officers already can't keep up with the people they have to manage..."AND" most of the judges don't listen to them when they take someone into court for vilation of their probation. I agree that Sheriff Joe could help solve this problem. The soldiers can live in a tent, why is it too bad for a prisoner to live in one. Build a jail with one person per cell and that is where they stay. One/Two jailers can walk down the hallway and see them ... there will not be gangs in jail and there will be no fights. How can there be when the prisoner never leaves his cell. People will not "want" to go to a jail like that.
  • by Home Slice Location: Washington, NC on Aug 2, 2009 at 04:57 PM
    The comments made by Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange County, should enrage everyone! "What we are able to show is that public safety is not compromised." Does she own a crystal ball? Use common sense folks. Reducing senctences or allowing more criminals to roam the streets = more crime. The DOC's(Probation/Parole)upper management deliberately avoids hiring new officers to fill vacant positions just to save a dollar. The State of NC needs to release all NONVIOLENT OFFENDERS and place them on probation/parole but only after the state has hired and properly trained new officers. VIOLENT CRIMINALS should be "warehoused."
  • by Its a joke in there on Aug 2, 2009 at 04:27 PM
    If the prisons were ran as prisons instead a day care with them walking all around the prison, having them work or keep them in the cell,and let them watch whatever tv shows they want. They have more freedom and rights than we do. There is nothing wrong with discipline
  • by Cactus Location: Strabane on Aug 2, 2009 at 03:12 PM
    The streets would run red with blood from the bleeding hearts should NC follow Maricopa standards.
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