Facing a tight budget and surging prison population, Gov. Bev Perdue announced a move Wednesday that is aimed at cutting costs while keeping the public safe.
North Carolina will work with the U.S. Justice Department, the national Council of State Governments Justice Center and the nonprofit Pew Center on the States to study why so many young people end up in prison and to invest in new programs aimed at addressing the root causes of crime and recidivism.
North Carolina must remain tough on crime, the governor said, but the state must also be smart on crime.
Perdue cited figures showing that the state prison population grew by one quarter between 2000 and 2008, while North Carolina's spending on corrections nearly doubled. If that rate of growth continues over the next decade, the state will need to build 8,500 more prison beds, costing about $2 billion.
"You can't build prisons fast enough," the governor said. "The question I ask, as amama and a grandmama, is do I want to spend all our new money on prisons, or do I want to spend our new money on education and jobs."
By participating with the national groups in the justice reinvestment program, the state expects to benefit from research expertise gained from similar programs in states such as Texas and Michigan. Perdue said any recommendations at the end of the process would be data-driven solutions that would require bipartisan support.
As she spoke in the state House chamber at the Old State Capitol, Perdue, a Democrat, was flanked by legislators from both parties, as well as criminal justice officials.
Rep. Paul "Skip" Stam, the Republican leader in the House, said he supports the data-driven approach set out by the reinvestment plan.
"We all agree that the first, indispensable role of state government is to protect people from danger, and not lose sight of that," said Stam, a lawyer from Apex. "I'm happy to join this effort because we do agree that the solutions we come to ought to be driven by facts and policy, and not just be preconceived notions."
Perdue predicted that the recommendations that come at the end of the research could be controversial and present difficult choices, but she reiterated that public safety would be the priority.
"There will be those who say, 'What in the world is going on?'" Perdue said. "There will be those who question the data we mine. ... But doing nothing will only force the state to do more of the same."
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