This is part three of a series of articles with insightful commentary into Tom Ross, the next President of the University of North Carolina System. This installment looks at Ross’s involvement with the Structured Sentencing Act as Chairman of the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission.
Twenty years ago, state prison populations forced the North Carolina Department of Corrections to effectively “legalize misdemeanors.” Many existing prisoners were released to be free long before their sentences had required.
To respond to the matter of justice in our legal system, the General Assembly and Chief Justice Jim Exum looked to Tom Ross to chair the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission. This commission’s objective was to develop a system of sentencing that brought a jurisprudence of calculated pragmatism through handling the problem of overcrowding prisons from the “front end.” 1
The proposal of the commission initiated a shift in the philosophy of sentencing prisoners to prioritize prison resources over the justice of retribution, diminishing the severity of sentences when overcrowding would result, and not considering expanding prison facilities. This was a part of what would later be known as the Structured Sentencing Act.
The state responded to prison overcrowding with efforts to cap the prison system population in 1986. This created a de facto method of controlling prison population, but a method that sacrificed justice and equity in the process. With the prison populations set at an immutable limit, the burden of overcrowding was passed on to the Department of Corrections, which was forced to parole prisoners far earlier than they deserved, thus “undermining the integrity of punishment“. Sentences had little predictability or meaning, offenders served only a fraction of their sentences, [and] misdemeanants rotated in and out of prison.”2
The commission was created in 1990 to tackle this legal system crisis. With Ross at the helm of the commission, the general philosophy, “envisioned a system in which criminal justice policies and resource considerations were tied together.”3 Instead of retributive justice, punishing criminals with the active jail sentences they earned, bed space available became a key consideration.
The General Assembly encouraged this miserly attitude towards the justice system. Members of the commission, including a few of the legislative members, voiced concern of the lack of political will to increase Department of Correction appropriations. A recent prison bond that passed by a slim margin in a public referendum substantiated these claims. Thus, the commission proposed a plan to the General Assembly that kept expenditures at their current operating capacity so as not to incur additional costs.
Ross submitted the final proposal to the General Assembly, which included a massive reduction in the severity of punishments across the board. Certain felonies permitted a non-prison option of sentencing that previously required an extensive prison sentence. All sentence terms irrespective of the severity of the crime were reduced by 17.3 percent, and an additional 10 percent was chipped off of B and D category felony sentences (which includes such crimes as inflicting “serious, debilitating, long-term injury on another,” among others). The rollback of punishments revealed a true leniency on crime and a perverted philosophy of jurisprudence, which championed political expediency over justice.
The proposal was so contentious that a number of members of the board could not stomach the effects that such a proposal would have on the judicial system. For these members, “the emphasis on resource allocation and capacity was unpalatable.” These members submitted a minority report to the General Assembly in protest of the former proposal. This minority report, however, was summarily overlooked.
The legislation passed easily through the House and Senate and became known as the Structured Sentencing Act of the 1993-1994 Session. Ross went on to be heralded by Governing Magazine as one of the Top 10 National Public Officials of the year, and was lauded with numerous accolades for his work in solving the overcrowding crisis, despite the profound tone of leniency engendered by his work.
The work of the sentencing commission lives on in the fiscal notes that are now prepared for changes that affect punishments for criminal acts. Also a new government bureaucracy was established, the NC Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission, which studies the criminal and prison population and makes recommendations. It maintains the models that predict prison population. One of the good things that structured sentencing did was to end the practice of parole where a group of political appointees would determine if someone was to be released from prison before the completion of their prison term.