The way crimes are punished in North Carolina is changing. This year, more than 100 bills would create new felonies or change the sentences for existing felonies. They would affect crimes ranging from theft of timber to the rape of a child. Other bills would make changes to misdemeanors, and several would expunge felony records for some offenders. Regarding the latter, after anywhere from two to 10 years of good behavior, some individuals could have their records expunged of Class H and I felonies (see table for examples of felonies). With all of this activity, we thought it would be helpful to give a little breakdown on the system.
In the 1980s, the prison population in North Carolina swelled, resulting in prison overcrowding, lawsuits by prisoners, a legislatively imposed prison cap, and early release for many prisoners from a system bursting at the seams. The legislature built more prisons and, in response to the ridiculously short sentences actually served by some prisoners due to overcrowding, passed Structured Sentencing.
Structured Sentencing, designed at the General Assembly’s request by the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission, replaced “Fair Sentencing” in 1994. It was intended to “restore rationality, order and truth to the criminal justice system,”1 without placing undue stress on the prisons. The result: crimes are classified according to severity and their impact on society, and punishments are meted out based on the classification of the crime and the offender’s prior criminal record. (Drug trafficking and DWI crimes are dealt with separately. See reverse for felony classes for most offenses.)
Offenders are sentenced to active, community or intermediate punishments. Active sentences for felonies are served in prison, and judges select a sentence from a set range. Community and intermediate sentences are served primarily outside the prison setting and involve probation, community service, and fines for community punishments, and programs like intensive probation, electronic house arrest, and drug treatment court for intermediate punishments. The more serious felonies require active sentences and supervision after release from prison, while the less serious felonies give judges the option of imposing an active or non-active sentence.
Also in response to prison overcrowding, the legislature required that any bill affecting the prison population must have an analysis done by legislative staff in consultation with the Sentencing Commission (a “fiscal note” called an “incarceration note”) that projects the fiscal impact for at least the next five years. These analyses assume that no changes in behavior — i.e. changes in prosecution or the prevention of future crimes — will result from the higher penalty.
As a result, before any of these 100-plus bills reach the floor of either chamber, they will have an incarceration note attached. The bottom line: if you increase a criminal penalty, and even one person gets a more severe sentence as a result, it costs money. If the offense is a much higher level, and affects a lot of people, it costs a lot of money.
Why? Four reasons:
- Higher-level felonies mean longer sentences. Probationers tend to spend longer on probation, and prisoners occupy prison beds for longer periods.
- Higher-level felonies mean more prison sentences. As the severity of the crime increases, judges are more likely to send an offender to prison, rather than give him an intermediate sentence. Prisons are much more expensive: they average $68.45/day vs. $14.97/day per offender for the most expensive intermediate sentence.
- Higher-level felonies mean higher revocation rates. Offenders who are given intermediate sanctions for more serious felonies are more likely to violate their conditions of probation or commit new crimes while on probation and be “revoked” — sent to prison.
- Higher-level felonies mean more trials. Defendants charged with more serious felonies are less likely to plead guilty and more likely to demand a trial, and trials are much more expensive than plea deals. As legislators consider crime bills this session, they must evaluate these costs and the impact that each crime has on individuals and society. They must remember, also, that not all potential costs and savings are included in a fiscal note. For example, more than half of those entering prison are repeat offenders, but it is not possible to project the number of crimes that might be prevented because the offenders who would have committed them are imprisoned for longer sentences.
To help legislators and citizens sort through all the proposals, we have provided a summary of the Sentencing Commission’s guidelines for felony offense classes, along with the range of sentences that can be imposed and some examples of crimes in each class.
- NC Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission, A Citizen’s Guide to Structured Sentencing, 2005.To help legislators and citizens sort through all the proposals, we have provided a summary of the Sentencing Commission’s guidelines for felony offense classes, along with the range of sentences that can be imposed and some examples of crimes in each class.