North Carolina lawmakers seem more concerned with saving a few dollars than keeping those charged with rape, murder or many other felonious crimes in prison. Thanks to a new set of sentencing guidelines that went into effect on December 1, many convicted criminals won’t spend as much time behind bars.
The General Assembly passed and Gov. Bev Perdue signed into law Senate Bill (SB) 488, “Establishing Proportionate Sentence Lengths” and SB 489, “Even Out Prior Criminal Record Points” earlier this year. Together, they will have the effect of reducing some repeat felons’ sentences.
North Carolina law sentences convicted felons according to a structured sentencing grid that takes into account the severity of the crime and any prior convictions a person has received. Felonies are grouped according to alphabetical classes from Class A (1st Degree Murder) to Class I (minor drug or white collar offenses). For each type of crime a felon has committed, they are assigned record points depending on the severity of the crime. Points stay with a criminal if they commit another crime.
The convict is then sentenced according to where they fall on the grid when combining the class of felony committed with any prior record points they may have accumulated. The new sentencing structure allows some felons with higher prior penalty points to move into lesser sentencing ranges, while also lowering the minimum sentence that can be assigned by a judge.
For example, a person that commits a B1 felony (1st Degree Rape) with one prior penalty point prior to Dec. 1, 2009, when they are convicted, would typically receive a minimum sentence of 230 to 288 months in prison. If that same person commits the same crime after Dec. 1, 2009 the minimum sentence would be 192 to 240 months in prison, a reduction in sentence of approximately three years. Judges are bound by these sentencing ranges, so at the high end, these new guidelines will effectively lop 48 months (four years) off the sentence a judge can impose.
Similarly, if that person had six prior penalty points for a prior conviction of robbery with a firearm, and then later was convicted of 2nd degree murder (B2 felony), their minimum sentence would be reduced by 11 to 13 months, or roughly one year. According to the N.C. Department of Correction, 23 felons in this prior point range were convicted of B2 felonies in 2008.
SB 488 and SB 489 were introduced by Sen. Ellie Kinnaird (D-Orange) and co-sponsored by new Senate Majority Leader Martin Nesbitt (D-Buncombe) and Sen. John Snow (D-Cherokee). The sponsors of the legislation highlighted the need to save prison beds and save the state money as the main reasons to pass the bills.
The bills were passed by the Senate on July 15. SB 488 passed by a vote of 23 to 22 and SB 489 passed by a vote of 24 to22.
The bills then went to the House where they were passed on August 10 by votes of 61 to52 for SB 488 and 61 to53 for SB 489. Gov. Bev Perdue signed the new sentencing structure into law on August 28, 2009.
According to the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission, the changes included the bills will reduce the need for prison beds by 244 in the next two years and by more than 2,000 by the year 2020. The General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division estimates that this will save taxpayers approximately $13 million in 2011.
One interesting wrinkle in the new sentencing guidelines is the reduction in sentences will only affect repeat felons – those with prior conviction penalty points. First-time felons will not see any change in the length of their sentences.