Sweeping changes to N.C. law

Published 12:21 am Saturday, January 7, 2012

One of the changes created by the new Justice Reinvestment Act means misdemeanor sentences of up to six months will now be served in the Beaufort County jail, as opposed to the three–month cap set previously. (WDN File Photo/Vail Stewart Rumley)

They tried it in Texas, and in Kansas — two states that, at 140,000 and 9,000 inmates respectively, have very different prison populations. But in 2006, both states were scrambling, looking at numbers projected into the future: the number of inmates increasing by 20 percent; millions, and in Texas’s case billions, of taxpayer dollars were dumped into the construction of new prisons.

No end of expenditure was in sight. A new take was needed. Thus, the Justice Reinvestment Act was created, enacting sweeping changes to sentencing, to the public safety system, and the way in which all public safety offices interact. Instead of building new prisons, Texas and Kansas would manage the growth of their prison populations, investing instead in “community-based strategies to reduce recidivism.”

It worked. In Kansas, the prison population that was expected to grow by 700 between 2007 and 2010, increased by 10. In Texas, from December 2008 to August 2010, the number of inmates incarcerated decreased by 1,125 and is projected to function below operating capacity through 2015.

In 2009, North Carolina was faced with the same problem: by 2019, a 25-percent projected increase in inmates and many thousand of beds short to house them. The state was looking at $775 million worth of new prisons, largely because of the structured sentencing system put in place in 1994, resulting in violent offenders being given longer sentences. Like Texas and Kansas, the state looked at the data to find the reasons behind the population growth and what they found was probation revocations — post-release prisoners violating the terms of their parole and being sent back to prison by the courts.

For 2009, it was estimated that over half of all prison admissions in North Carolina were due to parole violations — those whose original jail sentences were restored because of those violations, and not for new crimes they’d committed.

The Justice Reinvestment Act, signed into law last June, addresses the problem specifically, allowing more supervision after release from prison and greater authority to probation officers without going through the court system.

“The authority we have, to add this or that — curfews, community service — that will be nice,” said Jami Stohlman, Judicial District Manager of Division of Community Corrections for Beaufort, Martin, Hyde, Tyrell, and Washington counties. “It will free up some of the courts’ time.”

Under the new law, the number of cases probation officers deal with will increase dramatically.

“Our numbers are really going to be pushed up,” said Stohlman. “We’ve had felons that get out of prison without a day of supervision.”

No longer. All felons released from prison will be under a mandatory 9-month post-release supervision, while supervision of those convicted of serious/violent crimes will increase from nine months to 12 months.

“It will cut down on recidivism,” continued Stohlman.

Increased supervision, along with expanded drug diversion programs, and new sentencing options for judges, will help to break the cycle of re-offense. Judges will be able to determine which offenders are eligible for Department of Correction targeted programming, like cognitive behavioral instruction in which inmates are taught cognitive self-change, social and problem-solving skills, and mitigating sentencing based on participation.

Another change brought about the Justice Reinvestment Act may impact the Beaufort County jail, which has been consistently subject to overcrowding and safety issues for three decades. The new law determines that offenders serving sentences for misdemeanor crimes will serve sentences up to six months in county jails. Previously, sentences over three months were served in the Department of Correction prison system.

“In terms of the burden it tends to put on the jail and jail staff — (the effect) is unknown. I think that will take time, as you get more and more people sentenced,” said Beaufort County Sheriff Alan Jordan. “But it most certainly will expand the burden on an already burdened facility.”

In addition, probation officers will also have the ability to confine their charges to the county jail for two to three days at a time, up to six days a month, though Stohlman implied such action would likely only be used in extreme situations.

“I don’t think it’s going to be happening a whole lot,” Stohlman said. “I would think it would be a last resort — used to really get someone’s attention.”

While Jordan is concerned about the additional burden on the jail and jail staff, he conceded that the expanded authority of probation officers might be beneficial.

“On the face of it, I don’t think it’s a bad idea because probation officers have a tough job trying to manage their clients,” Jordan explained. “(The Justice Reinvestment Act) gives them a little bit of power to manage, direct, and guide them.”