Eleven years ago, North Carolina’s prisons were so overcrowded that some convicts were paroled almost as soon as they arrived. It’s not so bad today, says the Raleigh News & Observer, thanks to a prison construction boom and revised sentencing laws that toughened penalties for violent offenders and steering nonviolent criminals to probation, drug treatment, and community service. Now projections show the state will need several thousand new prison beds by 2013 to cover the increasing demand. Criminal justice experts, drug treatment professionals, andd social justice advocates spoke yesterday at a “Smart on Crime” symposium to look for ways to reduce the need for cells without endangering communities.
“North Carolina is at a crossroads,” said Laura Sager of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a symposium co-sponsor. “It could continue to build more prisons, or build on its thoughtful sentencing policies.” FAMM supports the N.C. Sentencing and Policy Commission’s proposals to reduce some sentences to eliminate the need for about 4,600 prison beds over the next 10 years. FAMM backs the commission’s proposal to revamp the state’s 37-year-old habitual felon law, which allows prosecutors to classify nonviolent criminals as repeat offenders who must serve at least 3 years, 8 months in prison after their fourth felony conviction.
Prosecutors say they need the law to get repeat offenders off the streets before they commit more crime; critics say it punishes nonviolent criminals too harshly. Prosecutors rarely used the law until sentencing reforms took place 10 years ago. Today, they are putting more than 600 habitual felons behind bars annually, and those inmates represent a fast-growing segment of the prison population.