Thursday, lawmakers got a report detailing the prison population and projected growth in the number of offenders, and it is clear that fixing the problem will be costly.
"I think it's all one big mess," said Rep. Will Neumann, a Gaston County republican.
Statistics presented to legislators show that the state is already short 885 prison beds, and that is with prisons operating at capacity levels that are less than ideal. Projections show the state could be more than 6100 beds short within 10 years.
"We don't have enough prison beds for prison to be a deterrent," said Nelson Dollar, a Wake County republican. "All we have is a 'catch-and-release' program."
A fiscal analyst who made the presentation in the Legislative Office Building said there are a couple of options for combating the bed-shortage problem. Those options include building more prisons, expanding existing facilities and changing sentencing structures so that offenders spend less time in jail. That last option would likely send even more offenders to the state's probation system; officials are on the record as saying the probation system is already broken.
Lawmakers say they need to combat both problems with prisons and probation.
"You've gotta fix both of 'em, I don't think it's a chicken or the egg, you've gotta work on both," Neumann said.
Gov. Mike Easley's proposed budget includes about $4 million to help the probation system. If approved, that money might be used to hire dozens more staff and chief probation officers. Some of that money would also go to a reserve fund. Some think much more money is needed.
"I don't think it's enough, when I heard four million, that's sort of like a study committee on it," Neumann said. "That's just not enough money when you've got a hundred counties, and you look at the population of North Carolina."
The fiscal analyst, Doug Holbrook, said the state needs to spend between $85 million and $120 million immediately to address the projected 1800 bed shortfall by 2012.
It is unclear what money legislators will approve, but Dollar, the Wake County representative, is cautiously optimistic.
"It's not gonna happen overnight, but the system can be fixed," Dollar said.