RALEIGH --An effort to reduce the number of repeat criminal offenders in North Carolina, and in turn inmate beds, is moving ahead even with leadership changes at the General Assembly. Republicans now commanding the Legislature say they support the "Justice Reinvestment" project begun nearly a year ago, billed as a bipartisan effort when Democrats held the majority. Outside experts are evaluating state crime, prison and probation statistics and will suggest options later this month to improve public safety and avoid costly prison construction.
Proposing swifter, short-term penalties to probation violators and supervising more felons once released from prison are among ideas that could be presented to a working group comprised of all three government branches. The Legislature would have to approve changes.
One key GOP leader says he's willing to reduce some nonviolent drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors-- a move that could be perceived by some as lessening judgment on criminals.
"We're not going to coddle criminals. We're going to put them in prison for the appropriate amount of time," said House Majority Leader Paul Stam, R-Wake. But "if a criminal is willing to not be violent, we don't need to punish them as much as someone who is violent."
Justice Reinvestment, a project of the Council of State Governments with help from the Pew Center on the States, wouldn't embark on the effort last year unless it had buy-in from both sides of the political aisle.
"With both parties involved, it takes away the desire to use that 'soft-on-crime' stick," said Rep. Alice Bordsen, D-Alamance, who helped get the project started last year. "I am really excited about the continuation of it."
The effort nears a critical stage soon after a new annual report by the state Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission projects the rate of increase in the projected prison population is actually slowing. The commission attributed it to many factors, including demographic and sentencing changes and a decrease in the number of overall convictions.
The commission said last year the state would have to look for an added 8,500 beds by 2019 to house 50,829 prisoners. Now the commission says less than 2,300 extra beds are needed in the same year because projections have fallen to 44,208 prisoners.
Still, the prison population remains on an uphill climb, increasing 29 percent during the last decade even as rates or violent and property crimes fell during the same period, according to a draft presentation last month from Justice Reinvestment project leaders. Some of the population increase can be attributed to offenders who return to prison because their probation is revoked -- they accounted for 53 percent of all prison admissions in the 2008-09 fiscal year, the report said.
In September, the Department of Correction began evaluating probationers more closely and calculating individual risk levels. More intense supervision is shifting to those with the highest risk levels, department spokesman Keith Acree said. Stam and others contend many probationers return to prison because they're not experiencing immediately the consequences of failing to meet the requirements of probation until after they make several mistakes.
Instead, Stam likes a proposal that would ship probationers to a county jail for a day or a week if they miss a curfew or drug test -- giving them a shock that hopefully would keep them out of long-term trouble. Georgia and Hawaii have met with success with such sanctions, said Marshall Clement, the director for Justice Reinvestment, which has been carried out in more than a dozen states over the past several years.
North Carolina's report also found offenders sentenced to prison for lower-level felonies aren't supervised once they're released, resulting in higher re-arrest rates. Requiring post-release supervision for these crimes could lower those rates, Stam said.
While Stam supports creating a new class of misdemeanors nonviolent drug offenses, it's unclear if Clement's group will propose it as an option for state officials to consider.
Law enforcement is taking a wait-and-see approach about proposals before they see data, such as whether the jails sheriffs operate would become more or less crowded. "If we can better use our resources in a manner that doesn't jeopardize public safety, that would be good public policy," said Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president of the North Carolina Sheriffs Association.