Structured Sentencing Essay, Research Paper
Research Paper Structured Sentencing
Promising to get tough on crime has become popular with politicians and much of the public. But in the late 1980s North Carolina came to realize that the promise can carry a high price, resulting in expensive prison-building programs, diminished space for violent offenders, a mismatch between sentences and actual time served, violations of federal decrees on prison overcrowding, and ultimately, a broad failure of public confidence in the judicial and corrections systems.
Not long ago, North Carolina’s prison cells were filling up at an increasing rate each day, but they held too many of the wrong people–nonviolent, low-priority felons. The sentencing system that was in effect was erratic and uneven. Offenders served very small portions of the sentences that judges imposed. A typical offender, after remaining in detention for several weeks or months between the time of arrest and the judge’s imposition of sentence after conviction, often had no time remaining to be served on the sentence (US). This often happened for individuals with a relatively serious felony. So the problem that evolved was the Parole Commission had to release many of the offenders shortly after their sentence was imposed. The Parole Commission could not keep
all the inmates that should be in jail because of over crowding in the prisons (NC).
The problems of the system also extended to probation, restitution, and other non-prison punishments. The threatened prison time for violating non-prison sanctions was so short that it did not deter the probation violations. Most individuals would rather spend a couple of days in jail rather then going through treatment programs and having to answer to a probation officer for years (SPAC). To overcome these problems the State of North Carolina followed recommendations from the state s Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission to establish a Structured Sentencing System. The North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission consists of a twenty-eight-member body created to provide recommendations in sentencing and correctional policies for the State of North Carolina. In 1993 the North Carolina legislature passed the Structured Sentencing Law. Structured Sentencing became effective for all felony and misdemeanor crimes, excluding Driving While Impaired, committed on or after October 1, 1994 (NC). The new sentencing law classifies felons based on the severity of their crime and the extent and gravity of their prior record. Based on these classifications the type and length of sentence is prescribed (NC). The specific components of structured sentencing include offense classes, prior record levels and sentence disposition. Based on these factors, judges are provided with a variety of sentencing options for the type and length of the sentences (Wright).
Structured Sentencing is intended to restore front-end control and rational planning to the criminal justice system. Under the new sentencing laws, incarceration will increase for violent and career offenders (prison is mandatory in most cases) but decrease for less serious offenders with little or no prior record (US). Most of those incarcerated will serve more time than they did under the old law and most violent and career offenders will serve significantly more time than they did under the old law. Parole was eliminated and truth in sentencing was restored under the new law. The new law sets priorities for the use of expensive correctional resources and balances sentencing policies with correctional capacity (NC). Structured Sentencing has proved to be stable and efficient. The program is anything but soft on crime. Under the new law individuals have to serve one hundred percent of their minimum sentence (average of 40 months), whereas before the law was passed, offenders would serve less than twenty percent of their sentenced time. To reduce over-crowding in the prisons the state diverted some of the non-violent offenders into community-based rehabilitation programs.
Crimes are classified into two main categories, felonies and misdemeanors (NC). Felony crimes are classified into letter classes, from Offense Class A through Class I, based on the actual or potential harm to the victim normally associated with the crime. Class A includes the most serious felonies while Class I includes the least serious felonies. Felonies that involve victim injury or the risk
of victim injury are assigned to the higher classes. Property crimes and other not as serious crimes that do not involve injury or risk of injury are assigned to lower classes. Misdemeanor crimes are classified into four classes: Class A1, Class 1, Class 2 and Class 3. Class A1 are for the most serious misdemeanors and class 3 are for the lease serious crimes. Offenders, felony and misdemeanor, are classified into certain levels depending on the degree and magnitude of their prior record. Felony offenders are classified into one of six prior record levels, from Prior Record Level I through Level VI. Felons with an extensive criminal and violent background are assigned to the higher level whereas offenders with little or no prior record are assigned to the lower levels. Misdemeanor offenders are classified into one of three prior record levels depending on the number of prior convictions (NC).
The type of sentence that is imposed falls into three categories of punishments: active punishments, intermediate punishments, and community punishments (SPAC). Judges are required to impose active punishments for felons convicted of crimes that fall in high offense classes or for felons who have high prior record levels. An active punishment requires that felons be incarcerated in the state prison system if their sentence is over three months and those with sentences less than three months be incarcerated in the county jail (NC). Judges must impose intermediate or community punishments for felons who are convicted of crimes which fall in the lowest offense classes and who also have low prior record levels. An intermediate punishment requires the offender to be place on supervised probation under the supervision of the Department of Corrections (NC). The term of probation must also include one or more special conditions; for example boot camp, split sentence, and house arrest (Wright). Community punishment is viewed as basic probation. The probation terms may be supervised or unsupervised depending on the crime. A community punishment may also include fines, restitution, community service and/or drug/alcohol abuse treatment. Regardless of the offender s prior record, the judge can use his discretion and impose an active, intermediate or community punishment for offenders convicted of Class A1 misdemeanors. If the offender has no prior record and assigned to a lower misdemeanor class the judge must impose a community punishment.
Judges impose both a minimum and a maximum prison term for felony convictions that were assigned an active punishment. The length of the minimum and maximum term depends on the offense class, the prior record level, and the presence of any aggravating or mitigating factors. For each combination of felony offense class and prior record level, three sentence ranges are prescribed: a presumptive range for typical cases, an aggravated range for cases where the court finds aggravation, and a mitigated range for cases where the court finds mitigation (Wright). The judge selects a minimum prison term from one of these three ranges. Once the minimum term is set, a maximum term is dictated by statute (at least 20% longer than the minimum). For misdemeanor convictions, judges impose a single jail term. For each unique combination of offense class and prior conviction level, the judge selects one term from a sentence range. Under structured sentencing felons that are sentenced to prison must serve the entirety of their minimum term. Felons might serve up to their maximum term if they do not behave, fail to work, or refuse to participate in required programs. Misdemeanants must serve the full jail term except for specific circumstances (US).
Compared to the old law, the average actual time served in prison is greater for most offenders under structured sentencing. Under the old law, the sentence imposed by the judge was reduced by good time, gain time and parole (US). All of the early release options were eliminated under the new law. When released, felony offenders that were convicted of more serious crimes, Class B1 through E offenses, must be placed on post-release supervision (NC). The individual is monitored in the community and supervision is provided to help the offender mold back into society. If the offender violates their post-release conditions he/she may be sent back to prison to serve additional time. Unlike parole, the individual is not released early; the prisoner is released only after he/she served the prison sentence.
Community punishments are imposed under the structured sentencing by using a suspended sentence technique (NC). The active term that is imposed by the judge is suspended if an offender is sentenced to an intermediate or community punishment. If the offender violates the terms of their punishment they may be held in contempt of the court and can be incarcerated for up to thirty days in jail, or the judge may activate the full sentence. If the judge activates the prison terms, felony offenders must serve one hundred percent of the minimum term and might even serve the maximum term (SPAC). Misdemeanor offenders must serve the entire jail term except for earned time credits. With the new law in effect offenders will have to serve their entire sentenced if they violate the terms; in contrast to the old system, where the offender would just get a few days if they violated their probation.
Since the law was passed in 1993 the legislation has produced some encouraging results. The North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission’s data from late 1994 through June 1996 indicate that the most serious felons are indeed receiving prison terms in a greater percentage of cases and are serving longer average prison terms. The data also showed that in the great majority of cases, judges are adopting the ordinary sentencing range rather than the aggravated or mitigated ranges. Early reports indicate heavy use of several intermediate sanction programs. These preliminary results suggest that the sentencing structure is effectively predicting the correctional resources that the State will need and is directing serious felons and misdemeanants to longer prison terms while sending less serious felons to non-prison punishments.
In the years just preceding the sentencing guidelines, the number of habitual-felon convictions increased but remained relatively small by comparison to the total number of felony convictions (Wright). North Carolina’s courts complete more than 20,000 felony convictions each year. Prosecutors obtained convictions of 82 habitual felons charged in 1991, 136 in 1992, 164 in 1993, and 230 in 1994 (Wright). That pattern of steadily increasing but small numbers seems to be continuing under the new law. Prosecutors obtained convictions on habitual-felon charges in about 262 cases during 1995, the first full year for any sentences to be imposed under the structured sentencing plan (NC). Perhaps the number of convictions remains relatively low because prosecutors found it cumbersome to obtain the documents necessary to prove the prior convictions.
The Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission uses structured sentencing laws and a computer simulation model to estimate the prison and jail capacity that is needed to make sure sufficient capacity exists to back up the sentence imposed (SPAC). When current authorized prison construction is completed, the State will have capacity for over 35,000 inmates. Populations are projected to remain within expected prison capacity until the year 2006, at which time, additional prison construction will be necessary to support structured sentencing (US). Based on a survey of current capacity and planned construction, overall statewide jail capacity should be adequate for the next five years. However, individual counties may experience some jail overcrowding depending on local pretrial and sentencing practices.
North Carolina s system today is turning around. Not all the problems have disappeared, and new ones keep emerging. But the reliance on guidelines to structure decisions about the use and duration of confinement has created a more promising future for criminal justice in the state. Structured sentencing has proven to be a very efficient system of criminal justice.