Jennifer Bigham of Waxhaw, N.C., had three forgery convictions by the age of 25. She was put on probation each time. On her next offense, she legally became a habitual criminal, meaning in her case a minimum term of nearly six years, reports the Raleigh News & Observer. She is one of several hundred habitual felons in state prisons serving lengthy terms for repeat nonviolent crimes such as writing bad checks, breaking and entering, and drug dealing and possession.
The law will be debated by the state legislature, which convenes next month. Prosecutors and victims’ advocates say it needs to remain tough to get incorrigible criminals off the streets; defense lawyers and other critics say it’s overly harsh and forces the state to spend tens of millions of dollars to build prisons.
The N.C. Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission is proposing to lessen the penalty for many habitual felons. For example, someone who became a habitual felon through a conviction for breaking into a car or cocaine possession would get about 18 months in prison, compared with nearly four years now. The commission estimates the change could save the need to add about 1,900 beds over 10 years. Of 761 habitual-felon convictions in fiscal 2002-2003, almost 80 percent of the “fourth strikes” that triggered them were nonviolent crimes. Almost 4,000 inmates are serving habitual-felon sentences, a fast-growing group accounting for roughly 10 percent of the prison population.