Monday, November 29, 2010

Repeal of Habitual Felon Law Could Save Budget

The new Republican North Carolina legislature has a daunting test ahead of it-- a budget shortfall of billions and a promise not to raise taxes.

Under NC's habitual felony law, persons convicted of their 4th felony are sentenced as class C felons and all sentences must be run consecutive. For serious offenders, this doesn't have much effect, but in low level cases, the sentences can be extreme.

For example, if someone is convicted of two counts of simple possession of cocaine, a class I felony, for even someone with a serious record, they would be presumptively be sentenced to two terms of 7-9 months, which the judge could run concurrenlty or consecutively, depending on the facts of the case. Under the Habitual felon law, that sentence becomes 134 to 168 months-- for a drug addicts possession of a few grams of crack. The costs of this policy are enormous and benefits are unclear.

It costs $27,134 to house someone in prison for a year. Since this law went into effect, prison roles have increased from 27,000 to 41,000-- an annual increase in cost from $729 million to $1.1 billion.

Last year, an N&O story estimated that this program has cost North Carolinians over $1.5 billion.

It's time to review this policy and make it not apply to lower level felonies, classes F, G, H, and I. Reserve these severe and extremely expensive punishments for those who commit serious violent crimes. Incarcerating low-level felons and drug addicts simply isn't worth the cost.

The legislature is committed to making cuts. Will they end music programs at high schools? Stop funding NC's world class college education system? Further destroy the mental health system? Or reduce the cost of a bloated prison system?

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