For the first time in about 100 years, the Republicans control the state legislature in Raleigh. Usually Republicans are regarded as "tougher" on crime than Democrats, and so it somewhat surprising that over the past 100 years North Carolina has developed a criminal justice system that is largely – though not entirely – difficult for criminal defendants.
Now that the Republicans are in control, some people had worried that the climate toward criminal defendants would be even more hostile. But some signs of reform are emerging from the General Assembly.
First, in 1994, North Carolina adopted structured sentencing which eliminated parole. Structured sentencing limits the way in which a judge can depart downward from a presumptive sentence, meaning that it favors harsh punishments.
As a result, while crime rates have fallen in North Carolina over the past decade, the number of people incarcerated in North Carolina's jails and prisons has increased by 23 percent. The vast majority of the increase is the result of harsher punishments for non-violent drug crimes – drug possession, drug sales, maintaining a dwelling where controlled substances are used or sold, and so forth.
But now with a massive budget deficit looming, the Republican-controlled General Assembly is looking to lessen punishments for non-violent crimes and change certain felonies into misdemeanors.
This is the right approach. Violent felonies should be punished harshly. But non-violent crimes – where there is no victim and where there is merely the sale or possession of a drug – are costing North Carolinians billions of dollars in extra spending while achieving little in terms of safety.
Second, the General Assembly is considering introducing post-release supervision. While I don't particularly favor creating new punishments after release, if someone has otherwise behaved properly in prison, and can be released early and placed on a supervision program, it can dramatically decrease costs and increase safety.