Overhaul of NC sentencing shows progress

It is a lesson Republicans, who happen to be in charge in North Carolina now, might take to heart. And, yes, when Democrats were running the show, they could have learned a thing or two about the effectiveness of bipartisanship.

In 2011, North Carolina’s prison population was growing. The probation system was failing because of lax supervision caused by understaffing. A majority of prison admissions were because of revoked probations. Treatment programs to help inmates addicted to drugs and suffering other behavioral problems were sparse. Prisons were always under construction to keep up with growing inmate populations.

Then Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue and Republican lawmakers agreed to address the issues through the Justice Reinvestment Act. Now, the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments reports that the state is doing better than its expectations, the Associated Press reported.

More workers, more oversight

Common sense ruled the reforms. For example, those convicted of felonies now receive nine or 12 months of supervised probation after release. That wasn’t the case before, and that lack of oversight no doubt caused the recidivism rate – the percentage of those inmates who would return to prison – to go up.

And now the number of those entering prison because of revoked probations is about one-third of all admissions rather than more than half of them.

The probation program means, said a Mecklenburg County official, “That offender is able to sit down and have a meaningful conversation at length, with no time restraints, to discuss what’s happening with them in their lives, to discuss solutions to their problems.”

The probation system also has more workers, which should cut down on the number of probationers committing horrific crimes after having virtually no supervision. In 2008, UNC-CH student body president Eve Carson was killed in Chapel Hill by two men on probation. In some cases, probation officers perhaps didn’t have adequate training. But in others, it was simply a matter of a shortage of officers, with even the best ones stretched too thin to cover all of their clients.

Now, when people do violate probation, the probation officer can put them in jail for two or three days to get their attention and address problems. That’s far better, for them and for the state, than putting them back into state prison.

Thousands fewer inmates

Overall, instead of more prisons having to be built all the time, 10 prisons have closed, and the inmate population has dropped by 3,400 offenders in three years.

The verdict on reform is not unanimous. The American Civil Liberties Union doesn’t buy the idea that the changes are really cutting incarceration rates. Misdemeanor offenders are in county jails and not in state prison, the ACLU notes, and sentences for repeat offenders for breaking-and-entering are longer.

The ACLU is doing its job. But the overall benefits of reform seem to outweigh those objections. Consider that from 2000 to 2009, the state’s prison population grew by an astonishing 29 percent and, not surprisingly, taxpayers felt it, with the Department of Correction’s budget going up 68 percent during that time.

There’s progress to be made. David Guice, a former Republican legislator who is now commissioner of adult correction and juvenile justice, says that offenders need more help moving back into mainstream society and that many need mental health care. Also, Guice said, the state must invest in more transitional housing, places for inmates to go to help them get started. That kind of investment better helps people and costs less than keeping people in prison.

So here’s that lesson again. Confronted with a crisis, Democrats and Republicans were able to overcome the standard slings and arrows that fly over law-and-order issues and really do something to address a problem with sense and humanity. Let’s hope the members of both parties take note. Immediately.