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N.C. Makes Punishment Fit the Budget

WASHINGTON POST

In the face of increased crime and out-of-control prison costs, judges in North Carolina’s criminal courts in October will begin using a simple, one-page chart of letters and numbers to dispense justice that--quite literally--makes the punishment fit the budget.

Officially called the “felony punishment chart,” but known by prosecutors and criminals as “the grid,” the chart is the centerpiece of an innovative sentencing law that has put North Carolina at the forefront of a nascent but increasingly popular concept of criminal justice: balancing prison sentences with available cell capacity.

For several years, states have been turning to sentencing guidelines in an attempt to gain control over rapidly escalating prison populations. Minnesota pioneered this approach, and presumptive sentencing rules have been enacted in at least 16 other states.

With budgets strained to the breaking point by rising health-care costs and other social programs, states have been taking a second look at the hard-line anti-crime measures and mandatory minimum sentences they enacted in the 1980s--with little regard for future prison costs--and are examining more economical alternatives.

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States and counties spend $25 billion a year for corrections, 85% of which goes to building and operating prisons, and only 11% of which is spent for community-based corrections such as probation and day reporting centers.

North Carolina has spent $550 million since 1985 to build prison space for an additional 16,600 inmates, and the Corrections Department’s operations budget has grown from $195 million in 1985 to $472 million last year. But North Carolina’s sentencing structure, unlike those of most states, is a hard-and-fast list that either has to be followed by judges or scaled down by the Legislature to conform to available prison resources.

Known as “structured sentencing” or “capacity-based sentencing,” the system recognizes the impossibility of building prisons fast enough to keep up with the influx of offenders. The new system also acknowledges the state’s inability to imprison most offenders for anywhere near the duration of the sentences the courts have been handing down.

While abolishing parole for all new offenders and lengthening sentences for violent criminals and repeat offenders, the new law will reduce prison sentences an average of 80% to conform more closely to the length of time that inmates actually are behind bars at present.

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“What we’re doing is setting priorities. We’re saying we will use our prisons for violent offenders and career offenders. The converse of that, of course, is that we will have to punish the others in other ways,” said Superior Court Judge Thomas W. Ross, chairman of the state’s Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission, which proposed the reforms enacted last year by the Legislature.

The “other ways” are community-based alternatives such as closely supervised probation, day reporting centers, halfway houses, boot camps, drug-treatment facilities, electronically monitored house arrest, fines and restitution.

But the heart of the new law is the grid, a compilation of ranges of minimum and maximum sentences for 10 categories of felonies that are matched to a defendant’s criminal record through a point system.

On the left side of the chart is a list of crime categories, ranging from Level A (first-degree murder) to Level I (fraud, forgery and lesser drug offenses). The numbers across the top correspond to the number of points a defendant has accumulated through prior convictions.

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When ready to impose a sentence, a judge matches the severity of the crime to the defendant’s prior record to find a square containing the corresponding sentence range. An offender must serve at least the minimum sentence listed.

For example, Level D, which includes first-degree burglary and armed robbery, has a first-offender range of 44 to 55 months without aggravating or mitigating circumstances. The total range for Level D is from 33 months for a first offender with mitigating circumstances to 158 months for a multiple offender with aggravating circumstances.

First and second offenders of some nonviolent felonies can, at the judge’s discretion, be given suspended sentences provided they complete an alternative punishment, such as intensive probation, house arrest or boot camp.

Persons convicted of first-degree murder will continue to receive a death sentence or life without parole, and repeat offenders convicted of first-degree rape can get life without parole. Drug traffickers will continue to receive pre-existing, mandatory minimum sentences.

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