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."
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