Inmates are entering North Carolina’s prisons faster than the state can build new ones, reports the Charlotte Observer. The state is spending hundreds of millions of dollars building new prisons, but it could face a prison overcrowding crisis by the end of the decade. Legislators, prosecutors and corrections officials may have two unpopular choices: keep building prisons or shorten some sentences. Otherwise, they fear that the state could face a federal takeover of its prison system, as it did in the 1980s. The state prison population will top 40,000 by the end of the decade and reach more than 44,000 by 2013, projects the N.C. Sentencing Commission. State’s prisons will be able to house only 37,743 inmates in 2008. The sentencing commission this month will present its projections to state legislators.
Two years ago the panel outlined ways to divert 4,600 criminals from prisons over 10 years. One alternative would be to shorten sentences for many felons by two months to a year. Another would dramatically slash sentences — some by more than a half — for nonviolent habitual felons.
Legislators have not shortened any penalties. In an election year, it’s unlikely they’ll take action. “Some people don’t want to be portrayed as being soft on crime,” said N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Jackson. “They don’t even want to look at these issues.”
In South Carolina, the prison population reached 22,845 in 2003, an increase of nearly 2,000 in two years. The total is projected to hit 30,700 by 2007. Unless new construction is approved, the state expects to have only 25,000 prison beds in 2007. S.C. House Speaker David Wilkins, R-Greenville, and three others have filed a bill that would allow nonviolent offenders serving under five years in prison to be eligible for programs such as house arrest and electronic monitoring. That legislation isn’t likely to go anywhere.
Across the country state legislatures are rethinking get-tough approaches to crime as they struggle with budget crises. About two dozen states in the past year have eliminated some lengthy mandatory minimum sentences, restoring early releases for parole and offering treatment instead of imprisonment for some drug offenders.
Haire says that cutting sentences for some felons makes more sense than spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new prisons.”We’re not talking about putting rapists and murderers back on the streets,” he said. “We’re talking about low-level criminals, those who commit property crimes. Shortening their sentences would not jeopardize public safety.”